Published on 2015/06/04
The EvoLLLution | Trends in Post-Traditional Education: Tracking and Responding to Change
Leaders of non-traditional higher education divisions and institutions need to be more responsive to trends and changes in the market than most.

Although it can be argued that all higher education leaders need to monitor trends, it is imperative that those presently serving or seeking to serve the post-traditional student stay on top of the trends that are shaping and reshaping the higher education industry.

First, post-traditional learners have different and more immediate needs than traditional college students, and the very infrastructure of higher education is often at odds with meeting those needs. Second, although institutions strive to categorize post-traditional learners, they continue to belie a simple demographical definition. As Soares points out, post-traditional learners are diverse, encompassing “many life stages and identities.”[1]

Because this segment of the student population continues to grow significantly, leaders must be sure their institutions have the agility to adapt to market opportunities. In order to meet the needs of the post-traditional learner and properly allocate resources, then, leaders need to stay abreast of trends that may impact both the products and services higher education provides.

So, what are the three major trends that are impacting post-traditional education?

1. Growing Importance of Competency and Prior Learning

The first, and most critical, is the increased awareness and recognition of credit for prior learning opportunities that provide the foundation of another trend: competency-based education.

Although the awarding of credit for prior learning has been a regular practice at many institutions since the American Council on Education first issued credit recommendations for military training in the 1940s, the fact that the practice is now more widespread is a new trend. This trend has implications for both those institutions new to the credit for prior learning arena and those well-steeped in the space. For example, institutions that have long provided this benefit to post-traditional students must stay on top of this trend or risk becoming “traditional non-traditionals” unable to easily adapt to the changing demand and increased competition. Those leaders looking to serve the post-traditional learner must quickly figure out how to incorporate credit for prior learning into their institution’s culture.

2. Maintaining the Link Between Higher Education and the Workforce

While our struggling economy was a driver in boosting the number of post-traditional learners into higher education, continual monitoring of economic trends as they impact the workforce has always been part of a leader’s role in higher education. Certainly, leaders in the post-traditional space must continue to pay attention to business and industry trends in order to focus training and education efforts in high-demand areas, with an eye to those fields within which the post-traditional student may be seeking entry, re-entry or promotional opportunities.

At the same time, leaders must monitor trends that may provide efficient, just-in-time learning models and be willing to experiment with those trends, such as chunking information, or creating stackable credentials which may fall outside of a degree program but hold promise in helping post-traditional students become or stay employed in high-demand fields.

3. Keeping Abreast of New Technologies

Perhaps more importantly, it is necessary to pay attention to the trends in learning technology, particularly those that seek to meet the needs of post-traditional learner. We know that the trend to offer flexible online learning opportunities has proven its viability and tenacity, so leaders now need to be focusing on ways to improve those learning experiences through the use of emerging technologies such as adaptive learning, interactive simulations, game-based learning, more user-friendly learning management systems and beyond.

Overcoming Barriers to Change

Of course, visionary leaders will always face some internal resistance when responding to trends, but this resistance is perhaps the necessary by-product of shared governance. Implementing ideas based on trends requires a collective vision, a nimbleness and a risk-tolerance that some organizations lack.

In the case of non-profit higher education institutions, reacting to trends often requires a reallocation of scant resources and a consensus about which trends merit the use of funds set aside for innovation or contingencies. In addition, because no organizational change occurs in a vacuum, it is likely that major changes will ripple through the business processes and uncover new layers of change needed for implementation. At the core of that resistance, fiscal and business process concerns aside, is the fact that human beings generally resist change and may require a bit of “unfreezing” as Lewin suggested, before they are able to embrace change.[2] Leaders, of course, must anticipate this resistance and manage change in order to take advantage of those trends that will best serve the post-traditional learner.

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[1] Soares, L. (2013). Post-traditional learners and the transformation of postsecondary education: A manifesto for college leaders. American Council on Education: Washington, DC. Accessed at

[2] Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-41. doi:10.1177/001872674700100103

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