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How To Align Enrollment Management with the Expectations of Adult Learners

The EvoLLLution | How To Align Enrollment Management with the Expectations of Adult Learners
Adult students have extremely high expectations of the colleges and universities that serve them, meaning right from the prospect phase institutions need to be consciously angled to serving their needs.

Enrollment management practices are constantly changing to accommodate the evolving expectations of non-traditional students. This demographic is generally older than the 18- to 22-year-old learners most colleges and universities—and their associated management practices—were designed to serve. They have heightened expectations, less free time and, in many cases, very different needs. In this interview, Monique Snowden sheds a light on some institutional practices that help enhance student engagement and satisfaction through effective program launching and delivery.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s involved in effective institutional enrollment management?

Monique Snowden (MS): While there are aspects of enrollment management that certainly cut across institutional types, enacting effective enrollment management involves taking into consideration the distinct cultural, structural and analytical nature of an institution. First, from a cultural standpoint, the degree to which an institution perceives enrollment management as paramount to its success—and in some cases its survival—shapes how enrollment functions and structures are formed, performed and evaluated. Second, enrollment management structure, at a particular institution, impacts how enrollment plans are developed, authorized, managed and assessed. The effectiveness of enrollment management depends on the structural configuration and associated actions and interactions of individuals who lead and comprise enrollment taskforces, workgroups, committees, units and divisions. Last, an institution’s analytical capability has become increasingly important to its enrollment success. Looking back at enrollment trends remains an essential analytical action. However, many institutions have become more sophisticated in the use of looking forward at enrollment possibilities—via enrollment forecasting, predictive modeling and optimization. Arguably, an institution’s effective enrollment of new students, retention of current students, and graduation of future alumni is highly dependent on its capacity to compete on analytics.

Evo: How do these processes differ when it comes to serving adults instead of 18- to 22-year-old students?

MS: Enrollment management typically involves interdepartmental policies, practices and processes (3Ps) that cut across an institution’s student, academic and business affairs entities. Students experience the 3Ps by way of sundry services delivered and transactions performed, starting with matriculation and ideally ending with program completion. Along the way, they may encounter efficiency and effectiveness measures intended to meet their needs through standardized processes and generalized student support systems. Institutions, however, are accountable for more than maximizing the retention and graduation statistics of its students. They are also responsible for caring about students as individuals, with respect to facilitating their student development and personalized learning. How a particular institution fulfills this responsibility to its students, regardless of their age, should be the cornerstone of its mission and values.

Many traditional-age students enter into their collegiate experience with fewer caregiving responsibilities and occupational demands. Some institutions and institutional entities, such as continuing and professional studies, strongly pronounce their intent to meet the needs of individuals who may chose to enroll in college outside the age range typically considered traditional. Serving older student populations necessitates taking into consideration the temporal flow of their lives outside the institution. In other words, we must ask the question, “How do institutional processes mesh with students’ day-to-day responsibilities for self and others?” Institutional leaders should use the responses to this line of inquiry to ensure that common and distinct processes—serving different student populations—are constructed and mapped with student-centered logos (logic), pathos (empathy), and ethos (ethics) intentions. That is to say, processes should be rationally designed, necessarily responsive and justly administered.    

Evo: Shifting focus to program planning and design, how do the expectations and processes for launching and maintaining offerings change when serving adult learners?

MS: Effective program planning and design for distinct student populations must first start with attaining a nuanced understanding of the target group’s decision-making factors. For example, research has shown that prospective adult students tend to weigh price over reputation when choosing a program. Thus, both fee structure and payment options require strong attention when developing and launching a new program targeted at this particular audience. Students’ pricing sensibilities, in this particular example, are likely to persist as they move through the program. Therefore, it is equally important to maintain an astute awareness of perceived and actual affordability of the program for returning students.

While there are many aspects of program planning, design, launch and delivery that are similar in terms of offering high-quality programs in general, there are some notable differences when the intended students are adult learners. I should also mention a need to think beyond undergraduate education, keeping in mind that adult learners are traditional students with respect to graduate education.

Program design and delivery may need to accommodate more involved and self-directed learners who unlike dependent learners desire unobtrusive learning facilitation and guidance, as opposed to more direct learning regulation and instruction. To be clear, these learners’ expect strong and meaningful engagement with faculty, on their own terms—focused and on-demand. It is therefore important when designing and resourcing new programs that institutions direct sufficient attention and support toward ensuring clarity of course and program outcomes, assessment methodology, faculty roles and responsibilities, institutional support, and self-service capabilities.

Modality of the program delivery will have a significant impact on student expectations and institutional processes in terms of “time, place and manner.” This terminology is typically associated with lawful restrictions placed on assemblies, given that any constraints are justified, narrowly tailored, and leave open alternative channels for open communication and information flow. Taking a different turn, I like to think about the freedoms of time, place and manner that enable individuals to gather in learning places and spaces. First, how we conceive and treat time, in terms of students’ needs is critically important to their success. Second, the learning environments—physical and virtual—in which we place programs must be conducive to the learning needs of students, in terms of course and program outcomes. Last, the manner by which we provide complimentary wrap-around services and communication channels for academic offerings is similarly important in our program launch and maintenance processes.

Evo: What are the biggest challenges involved with meeting the heightened expectations of adults across these areas?

MS: Experiences from outside a college or university influence and shape students’ expectations. These external involvements can have positive and negative effects on how students perceive institutional interactions and resources, in juxtaposition with what is experienced and available, respectively, in other contexts. For example, the ubiquitous presence and use of technology in the course of students’ every day transactions and communication—such as social networking, banking, and gaming—has an intrinsic effect on what constitutes an expected and satisfying experience for them.

Adult students come to higher education with differential life experiences, in comparison to an archetypal traditional-aged student. In general, institutions admitting and enrolling students must be prepared to meet the expectations of knowledgeable, candid and sometimes demanding individuals. It is becoming more common for adult students to communicate heightened expectations in terms of what they deem as acceptable program delivery, faculty and staff responsiveness, special dispensation, and around-the-clock support. Furthermore, adult students often view themselves as assets to the institution and are keen to make known their investment of time, funds and talent. Beyond the real costs associated with pursing a certificate or degree, adult students are likely to think in terms of opportunity costs that they are absorbing. In other words, when faced with challenges or having encountered institutional barriers, adult students may question whether the aforementioned investments are misdirected—and if so, what they are not doing while enrolled and engaged in a particular academic program.

Evo: How do divisions and institutions geared toward serving adult students need to adjust to ensure their enrollment and program management processes are aligned with the needs of their customers?

MS: It is interesting that this line of inquiry references both students and customers, thereby suggesting that the terms are interchangeable—and perhaps one in the same. On one hand, the former reflects the relational connection between the faculty and those whom they teach, mentor, and help develop into scholars and practitioners. On the other hand, the latter connotes a service-oriented relationship that is primarily, but not solely, focused on administrative functions and actions. Arguably, one of the byproducts of aiming to serve our students better is that we might swing the pendulum too far toward treating them as consumers of products and receivers of transactions. We must not lose sight that the most essential processes in and outcomes of higher education involve student learning. I therefore urge institutional leaders to consider the planning, development, and management of academic programs as strategic enrollment management (SEM) activities—in addition to marketing, recruitment, retention and program completion processes.

Expanding SEM to include learners and learning is an explicit reminder that students seek education with particular learning goals in mind. I have been promoting learner-centered enrollment management for the last five years in spaces where teaching and learning are valued, as opposed to venues where marketing to and recruiting students is the focus. I must admit that a more academic re-conceptualization of the construct and practice does not resonate with many traditional chief enrollment officers—many who function outside of or at the periphery of program development, program management and program assessment. A learner-centered SEM orientation recognizes that learners’ self-concept, readiness, experience, orientation and motivation to learn are paramount to their student success and the viability of their respective college or university.


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