The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education
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Students are consumers, and they choose a postsecondary institution using the same decision-making process they use to make any other major purchase. Given the competitive environment non-credit, online, continuing and adult education divisions exist within, understanding the motivations of non-traditional students is especially important. Adult learners in particular tend to follow an “enrollment pipeline” that leads them to a final decision for their education, and the pipeline goes beyond their decision to register. So how should institutions build and maintain their enrollment pipeline?
In this interview, Michael Patton discusses the experience of different stages in this pipeline, reflects on the points where schools tend to lose their students and where leaders can make the most impact.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for adult and continuing ed leaders to be aware of enrollment pipeline stages?
Michael Patton (MP): One of the biggest reasons for leaders to be aware of the enrollment pipeline stages is because we see different types of needs and concerns arising at different stages within the pipeline. I consider that enrollment pipeline to be anything from the initial shopping around phase of deciding (if, what, when, and how much), all the way through to the first day of class and finding out in real time what the experience is going to be.
Understanding how that decision-making process works for adults—including the needs and concerns that might pop up at varying stages—can really assist those leaders in policy formation and process changes. For example, CE Leaders who understand the needs of their students at different stages of the pipeline can create processes to better facilitate communication and support for their students. Hours of operation, types of student communication and timing of specific information can be influenced by insightful leaders who are tuned-in to the needs of the student populations they serve.
Evo: What are the various stages of the enrollment pipeline?
MP: There are a few, and different schools might have different names for each of these stages. So, just speaking generically, there is;
The potential student is typically shopping around, looking for their options. They identify the schools themselves, and the different types of program and certificate options that are out there. Then they take into consideration the cost, location, modality and maybe online offerings. Once they’ve made those initial decisions, there are different questions or concerns that come about in regard to finances and scheduling. Will this best suit their work/family lifestyle and also be affordable?
Matching Expectations to Reality
That initial decision-making might have matched well with what they thought they were going to get, but once they start to take a deeper dive into what they are going to be learning, they may find it’s not matching their needs, or have additional questions they hadn’t thought of initially. They also might realize that things like course scheduling or financing options might not fit their needs as they become more familiar with the offering.
This is where they are really getting to be a part of the school. A lot of the time, schools might have their own requirements as far as what types of documentation individual participants might need to supply. So, there may be concerns that arise regarding what documents are requested. Do they have the documents or can they get them? This stage can create roadblocks in that the administrative or bureaucratic demands of the institution that could overwhelm the new student.
The final stage would be the first week or two, when the student is sitting in class and they’re really starting to see how it all comes together. They’re looking around the room, seeing who else is there, hearing the instructors for the first time. Although they may have thought about it abstractly, they are now seeing how this is impacting their workday, evenings, and weekends. It’s still very much a final piece of their decision-making because there’s always the possibility that they might say, “I can’t do it right now.”
Understanding each of those stages is very important to guiding your communication with students through each phase. The types of information you’re providing upfront will differ from what students need to know later on in the enrollment cycle. We must always have the mindset of serving the needs, interests, motivations of the prospective students, and making sure that they feel supported during each stage of that pipeline.
Evo: How important is it for higher ed leaders, especially those serving adults, to think about their students like customers?
MP: It’s critically important that we think of our students as customers when we’re talking about the overall experience. We have to realize that there are multiple continuing education offerings and degree programs out there. Schools offer different modalities, schedules and differ in costs and tuition rates.
There is a consumer aspect to the student’s perspective, and they’re going to choose what works best for them. To be successful, you really have to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of students because there are transactional realities for modern learners. Each student has specific expectations they are looking to have met, and if the school misses the mark, they have the choice to go somewhere else.
All students are still consumers of their own education, all the way through completion, and there are transfer options out there for them as well. It’s important that schools are working to support the students as their own customers at every stage of the student lifecycle, even beyond the enrollment pipeline, so that learners feel happy, supported and that we’re meeting their expectations both inside and outside the classroom.
Evo: Which areas of the pipeline are most susceptible to student drop-off?
MP: It’s definitely in the front end of that pipeline, in that decision-making process, because this is where the students are thinking critically about what’s being offered to them. A lot of times they might be focused on the outcomes of the end result, but they might not yet be thinking critically about the actual process of their performance and experience as a student.
What I mean by that is you might have a student who needs a certificate, course or program in order to keep their job or change their career—so they understand the outcome—but they might not have the capacity to actually invest the time required to succeed. This should drive home why it’s so important for us to provide as much accurate information as possible up-front, to support the decision-making process and stand out as an ideal provider (when appropriate).
A lot of times, CE leaders make a mistake in assuming that they are meeting students’ needs through their program offerings and credentials alone. It’s important to recognize motivation versus need. Need being, “My employer says I need this, so I need to have it.” Motivation, on the other hand, asks “Is this going to be right for me and my family? Is this going to improve my family’s life, and my life in general, or is this something that I can put off for a later date?”
It’s critical that we understand those elements so we can address prospects’ needs and motivations upfront, because that’s the critical fall-off phase. There might always be individual issues that arise throughout the entire pipeline, but mostly the Information Gathering phase is where the majority of loss happens. Students can see when a program doesn’t match their needs or won’t fit well. It’s essential to clearly frame how and why any given offering will work for the targeted students.
Evo: How can these insights into learner and prospective learner behavior help CE leaders transition more into that central strategic role when it comes to how the institution begins to evolve?
MP: We’re starting to see characteristics typically associated with non-traditional learners being displayed by more traditional audiences. With credentials, for example, university leaders are starting to recognize that the traditional student is starting to look for more certificates and short-term credentials in addition to degrees. And so, main campuses are starting to look more closely at stackable credentials to better meet the needs of their customers.
Of course, in CE we’re familiar with the benefits of the stackable model. Stackable credentials allow individuals to have that transactional ability—it’s an offering that occurs over a shorter time period leading to a specific learning outcome, but that can be applied towards additional education in the future. This encourages continuing education students to become lifelong learners, because they’re not looking at one-off certificates any longer. They’re looking at how certificates can build off of one another to provide more of a traditional type education, but complete them in little increments.
It’s easier for the consumer to see a smaller program and take those one at a time versus a long degree program that might go on for years, which might just not seem feasible upfront for an adult learner.
As 18 to 22 year-olds are starting to think and be motivated by the same factors that impact decision-making for adult students, leaders of divisions that serve non-traditional learners will naturally become more involved in the strategic evolution of the university.
Evo: How much staff effort would be involved in making that infrastructure vision a reality?
MP: Surprisingly, it’s not as much of a staff effort as it is a cultural shift within a particular institution. At my institution, for example, we have a very firm grasp on the needs of our population. This makes it an easy decision to make whatever changes are needed to serve our learners across their lifecycle.
Once your culture is set, as an institution, making those changes no longer becomes an issue of staffing hours and how much work it’s going to take. It becomes almost like no questions asked; “We need to do this because it’s what our students need.”
And it does generate work, there’s no secret there. You need to have faculty and staff prepared to make the necessary changes to the curriculum—working with accrediting bodies to make sure that you’re still in-line with what’s required—and the support structure to meet students’ expectations.
Additionally, once you’ve made that cultural change and recognize that every one of us is here for our students and their success, then the fear of proposing something new—something that might change the status quo—suddenly goes away.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Author Perspective: Administrator