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Shifting Student Expectations Have Reshaped the Higher Ed Landscape

The EvoLLLution | Shifting Student Expectations Have Reshaped the Postsecondary Landscape
Higher education is shifting because its core constituents—students—are starting to behave more like customers and are less forgiving of some of the inefficient and ineffective aspects of the academy not tailored for a strong customer experience.

As an industry, higher education has been under the microscope for about a decade. Navigating financial challenges, shifting student demographics and changing internal and external expectations, there’s a lot for college and university leaders to manage. In this interview with Andrew Roth, transcribed from a recent conversation, he shares his thoughts on how students’ expectations have evolved, how technology can help institutions adapt to these new realities and what trends are likely to continue reshaping the postsecondary space over the coming years.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have student expectations and demands shifted in recent years?

Andrew Roth (AR): One of the ongoing themes is shifting student expectations and demands, which is translating into a wide range of changes both in students and for institutions.

The first major change I’ve noticed over the last two to three years is a growing, explicit demand for job training. This indicates that students have shorter timelines and more immediate expectations; they expect to be able to earn a credential quickly and efficiently. One of the places we’re seeing that expectation met is in coding bootcamps. Their approach to delivering short-term certificate is starting to become much more prevalent and, with the partnership between Southern New Hampshire University and the Flatiron Coding bootcamp, it’s starting to move into the mainstream.

The second interesting shift in student expectations and demands is an impatience that didn’t use to be as prevalent. This impatience goes beyond the pursuit of their degree. College students who are really comfortable with social media—those 35 and under—expect instant answers and immediate feedback. It is no longer acceptable to not have clear pathways to outcomes; students now want to know specifically what they need to take, why they need to take it and how it will impact their goals. This is actually a very reasonable expectation on their part and it’s amazing that most colleges and universities have avoided doing this for so long. If you’re vague, ambivalent or sloppy about your institution’s pathways, it leads to my third shift, which I call “transferitis.”

Today, students will leave institutions if they aren’t satisfied with any aspect, whether it’s academic or administrative. On the administrative side, students today are short-term conditional purchasers. There is a consumer culture—a kind of shopper’s mentality—where they will go somewhere else if they don’t get some semblance of what they’re expecting relatively quickly.

On the academic side, this shift in student mentality creates an interesting dynamic in the social life of students outside the classroom. They expect to be attended to quickly and personally, regardless of the day or time. Today’s students, and especially traditional-age students, expect immediate gratification and results. If they don’t get that immediate result they tune out. That’s the fourth way the consumer mentality has shifted higher education.

A fifth change is the extreme price sensitivity of today’s students. I think this is a source of alarm for small private colleges in particular and perhaps more regional public institutions, as this price sensitivity ties into the transferitis, the consumer mind set, the impatience and the desire for job training.

That leads then to sixth change in today’s students, which is acute brand awareness. Students today are far more aware of the brand value of the institution. Colleges and universities have historically not paid much attention to this but in today’s marketplace, an institution’s brand is going to be a preliminary observation for today’s students who are savvy shoppers. Of course we already know that they’re pretty savvy in terms of price sensitivity, but when they start to understand the relative value of brands and, in particular, the relatively minimal value-add of non-elite brands, it could create interesting outcomes for different institutions.

Evo: How tied is the new brand-aware mindset of today’s students—where they are very focused on short-term outcomes—to the transformation into a consumer whose expectations are driven by their experiences with Amazon and other major retailors?

AR: You’re absolutely right on target. It’s not just the social media generation that is experiencing this shift to “student-consumer”—it’s everyone.

Everyone’s now been to Amazon and that increases the demand for clear pathways. Today’s students are no longer going to be satisfied with the run-around and they’re no longer going to be satisfied with sloppy advising—they’re going to expect clear answers.

Learning analytics can play a valuable role here as they can provide some predictive information that allows institutions to guide their students. Austin Peay, for example, has built a model that predicts a student’s most successful major and most likely pathway to a credential. Students today expect that kind of service. They’ve shopped at Amazon and they’re going to expect to have somebody guide them more effectively.

Someone said to me, “But that takes away student freedom.” I responded that you can look at it that way, but on the flip side these models are really doing what really good advisors always did, except even the best advisors could only look at a student’s file anecdotally. Advisors didn’t have the ability to synthesize each student’s file and then use that data to advise future students. Today’s use of analytics is really what very good advisors and counselors always did, but on digital steroids.

Enterprise intelligence—how institutions use their data—can give college leaders really cutting-edge knowledge about their external competitive environment so they can make sound strategic decisions. Colleges and universities should be utilizing the boatloads of information they’ve been collecting for decades. Some of the data has been aggregated into information but very little of it has been turned into knowledge and almost none of it into actionable intelligence. Predictive analytics is the first step to changing this.

Colleges have the opportunity to really take a lesson from Amazon and use predictive analytics to improve student advising. This will maximize student outcomes, which are easily measured by retention and graduation rates. That’s huge for students and for the institution.

Evo: What are a few of the other ways that institutions have started to respond to these more consumer-esque expectations of their students?

AR: There’s a refocusing of undergraduate education in terms of what it is, what it should be, and how it should work. This refocusing of undergraduate education ties into another issue: student-centricity. You’re going to see colleges and universities become more student-centric in the best sense of that word and less faculty-centric. That’s going to lead to a renewed focus on undergraduate education and institutions are going to discover that a big part of that is not going to be so much academic, but rather a focus on the student experience. There’s going to be an increasing focus on the parts of an undergraduate education that can’t be digitized or unbundled.

There’s an administrative revolution that is about to happen in higher education, driven by predictive analytics, the rise of information-based decision making and the demand for a student-centric experience.

Evo: Which of these trends do you think will really become ingrained in the mainstream management of higher education and which ones will just fall to the wayside?

AR: Half a decade ago, Moody’s predicted that a thousand colleges were going to go out of business in the next 10 years. In fairness to Moody’s, some colleges have already gone out of business and we are starting to see a lot of talks about mergers. But the fact is that if 1000 colleges were going to go out of business in one decade, we would have to see an average of 100 colleges closing per year. We’ve seen nothing even remotely like that and, unless the industry gets hit by another tsunami within another few years, we’re not going to. You cannot underestimate the powers of inertia of higher education. There are institutions that have existed for hundreds of years in some cases; they don’t change. They go slow and try to resist fads.

That said, I think competency-based education, which has been talked about for a long time under different names (like life skills portfolios, life experience learning and adult experiential learning, among others), is going to start ballooning. It is only going to grow as accreditors are finally realizing it’s not a scam. Students are no longer seeking credits through the credit hour, which is simply an anachronism from another era that made sense with one model of education in one point of time.

In response to the price sensitivity and impatience of today’s students, the unbundling of higher education is going to intensify. We are already starting to see the degree being unpacked and we’re going to see certificates begin to break down into short two- and three-course packages that might be organized into series of badges.

The use of predictive analytics and learning analytics is going to grow astronomically. We’re going to see predictive analytics used to build very sophisticated college orientations as well as advising and counseling algorithms to manage the transition into higher education and to help enhance college success. The institutions who can wrap their heads around that and deploy it are going to have a real competitive advantages over schools that can’t because they’re going to be able to retain their students and improve their outcomes, which will translate into a strong brand promise centered around student success.

On a more negative side, the extreme price sensitivity of today’s students isn’t going away and so colleges are going to have to learn how to operate more efficiently. The irony is that all of this technology can really enhance student learning and it also gives administration the opportunity to save money and redirect it to places that need further investments, but these investments typically aren’t made because of the up-front cost.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.