Creating a Fit to Stand Out: Succeeding in the Non-Traditional MarketJeffery Alejandro | Coordinator of Lifelong Learning Program, East Carolina University
There are over 4,700 colleges and universities in North America and each one is doing its best to attract non-traditional students. With this being the case, how does a university stand out from all the others? The best way to stand out is to be truly student-centered. Where universities fall short is either remaining true to the “build it and they will come,” “this is how we have always done it,” and “all things to all people” mentalities. Those mentalities take the focus off the students and keep it on the institution.
Most non-traditional students I encounter just want to find the right fit for them. To attract those students and, more importantly, to retain them, you must make them the priority. This starts by making sure everything on offer meets their needs. For the most part, traditional-aged (18- to 22-year-old) students are looking for degree programs that fit their lifestyle. Non-traditional students typically have less time to devote to degree programs. Many already have full-time jobs, families and community obligations. They want course schedules that fit into their busy lives. This can be face-to-face courses offered late afternoons, in the evenings, and on weekends, or this could mean asynchronous online courses that they can work on whenever they have a free moment. Universities must offer a variety of formats in order to be a viable option, including length of terms.
Alongside course timing is term length. Traditional 16-week terms are too long for most non-traditional students. With their lives in constant flux, they usually cannot commit to anything that long. The ideal term length for this student demographic is 5-8 weeks. Also, many non-traditional students are seeking degrees so that they can start or advance their careers. This cannot be accomplished until they have their credential in-hand. The longer it takes for them to earn the degree, the less likely that “dream” position will be waiting for them. These students are going to be looking for the quickest solution. Another reason non-traditional students need shorter terms is that they only want to focus on 1 to 2 courses at a time. Some say that their brains can only handle so much new information. The traditional student can handle 4 to 6 courses at a time. Non-traditional students cannot.
Another way for institutions to stand out is by having the finances of going back to school already planned out. This means having a set tuition for an entire degree program rather than having it set by the year. Students can better manage their own budgets when they know what the total cost of a degree is. They can also manage their payments to the institution. This method also relieves some stress. Students will not have to worry about tuition going up and having to comes up with additional funds during their studies. Financial aid is also important. Students tend to fear the financial aid process. They do not like having to complete the paperwork, applying for loans, or looking for scholarships and grants. If the financial aid package is presented to them quickly, this too relieves stress. Having staff available to do a lot of the leg work seems attractive to students.
Another source of anxiety for non-traditional students is standardized entrance exams. It has been years since most have had to take a formal test, especially one that tests their basic knowledge in multiple areas. There are some people who will never attend college because they are required to take a test to get in. Several universities had done away with standardize entrance exams for non-traditional students in order to get more of them into the classroom. They allow the students’ life experiences and work portfolio to be an indicator of their work ethic and baseline knowledge.
Finally, as with every transaction, great customer service stands out above all things. Many non-traditional students are already intimidated by going to college after years away from a formal classroom. To ease anxiety, universities should always be as helpful as possible. They should be receptive to the students’ needs and provide students with advisors to guide them from application to graduation. These advisors serve as their primary contacts on all matters and advocate for them in all service areas.
With so many non-traditional students shopping universities for a degree, universities must stand out. They best way to do this is to make students feel that they fit in and that the university’s degree program fits their needs.
Author Perspective: Administrator