Transforming the Student Experience for All
Colleges and universities across the United States are being held to a higher standard than ever before. Today, for the most part, students are not 18- to 22-year-olds with minimal experience in the market. Today’s students are non-traditional—adults and experienced consumers with competing priorities on their time—and they expect their institutions to meet their expectations or they will go elsewhere. This has led to a major shift in the way institutions operate and has fundamentally impacted the way we think about the role of the institution. In this interview, Christina Trombley shares her thoughts on how students’ expectations have evolved and expands on a few of the trends designed to meet these unique demands that could become mainstream operations over the coming years.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have adult student expectations and demands shifted in recent years?
Christina Trombley (CT): As adult student numbers continue to increase at college campuses—whether they are attending in face-to-face classes or through online and distance education—they are gaining a voice in how colleges and universities serve them. Adult students have much higher expectations for the services they receive, not only in the classroom but in all of the services received, such as advising and other student services. They are used to making larger purchases and to measuring costs against what they gain.
Adult students are much more apt to want a richer experience in their learning than their younger counterparts. They want to partner in the experience and expect their instructors to welcome this holistic approach to learning. In addition, how they want to learn is determining new structures for education such as accelerated learning models, credit for prior learning, etc.
Because adult students are the growth area for universities and colleges in a time when resources are scarce and new traditional-age freshman are even scarcer, higher education institutions are become more responsive to the needs and expectations of these students. Universities are beginning to understand the expectations of these students and are competing on the “value-added” aspect of enrollment support and student services.
Evo: Why is it especially important for continuing and non-traditional education leaders to monitor trends impacting the higher education space?
CT: Adult student populations will continue to grow in higher education. Adult students over the age of 25 make up 38 percent of the total student body in higher education. A quarter of total students are over the age of thirty and this population is expected to increase over the next five years (Hess, 2011).
Our own experience at UW-Green Bay reflects that growth. But the continuing education student population is also growing. These are the students who are taking training and professional development, either credit or non-credit, through our institution. Our continuing professional education program has grown over 100 percent in the past year. Demand for teacher professional development continues to increase, despite the changes in their requirements in the last biennium. New credentials in the way of certificates and alternative forms of educational delivery are starting in these areas as a way to develop access and serve students.
This type of dynamic change usually leads to innovation. Most change in higher education is being seen in adult and continuing education, and these areas are doing the most to respond to the needs of their students. This is why it is important for leaders of continuing and non-traditional education leaders to continue to monitor trends. The changes in education will start in these areas.
Evo: What are a few of the trends that have emerged in recent years to address these shifts in student expectations and demands?
CT: One of the biggest trends in higher education is on the increasing heterogeneity of the online student population. Now that all public institutions are offering online education (Allen & Seaman, 2014), more traditional students have access than ever before. Classrooms that were once filled with non-traditional students are now welcoming their on-campus, traditional peers. Students of all ages are taking online courses, and the blending of multi-generational student populations will have an impact on the instructional design and teaching in online classes.
Another trend is the adoption of analytics by, and the adaptation of analytics for, universities. Higher ed is just beginning to harness the power of analytics in its decision-making processes. Data, while collected, was often simply reported out; rarely did university leadership look to analytics to help determine trends on which to base decisions and future strategies. With so much emphasis on Big Data in the private sector business world, universities will follow suit and begin investing in the same types of analytics.
Universities are also beginning to place more value on prior learning. This is evidenced in the increasing availability of credit for prior learning, block transfer agreements and competency-based education. Previous skill sets and learning experiences can be assessed and transcribed into college credits using several different evaluations, such as exams, portfolios, etc. The decoupling of teaching and assessing should continue as students continue to expect transfer credit for things they may have learned through lived experiences or other institutions of higher education.
Evo: Which of these trends, if any, do you think has the potential to become mainstream?
CT: Certainly, the blending of traditional and non-traditional students in online learning shows no slowing. As adult students continue to increase and all students continue to access online classes, this blending will continue. As online class populations continue to become more heterogeneous, faculty and instructors will have to adapt their instructional design and teaching methods to welcome younger, more traditional students into the classroom.
But probably most important, the ability to assess prior learning and apply college credit to work and alternative educational experience will become more mainstream. As institutions work to find ways to overcome financial aid and enrollment management barriers that are directly tied to credit hours, more universities will be able to incorporate competency-based education and other credit for prior learning models, outside of the widely accepted credit exam.
In addition, as more lived and learned experiences are assessed and accepted for credit, faculty may become more comfortable with the decoupling of teaching and assessment. Universities will work to change policies that will allow more of these transfers of credits, placing a value on the experiences of non-traditional students.
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 Hess, F. (2011). Old school: college’s most important trend is the rise of the adult student. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/09/old-school-colleges-most-important-trend-is-the-rise-of-the-adult-student/245823/
 Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014). Grade change: Tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC. p. 1-40
Author Perspective: Administrator