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Strategically Planning for the Future of Higher Education: Attracting New Student Demographics

The EvoLLLution | Strategically Planning for the Future of Higher Education: Attracting New Student Demographics
Despite the proliferation of non-traditional programming, it is not the “silver bullet” for all institutions seeking to survive the decline of the 18- to 22-year-old student population. Only after taking an honest look at its strengths, weaknesses and strategic priorities should an institution consider smart, focused growth in this direction.
Higher education is changing. With the decline of traditional 18- to 22-year-old students on campus, colleges and universities can no longer rely on the historic assumptions that have driven their marketing and recruitment strategies for decades. In this interview, which builds off their first piece, Keith Lewandowski and Kayla Manning offer ideas and tactics that can help higher education institutions think strategically about how best to recruit this high-growth student population.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When we’re talking about the growth of non-traditional learners, is there more opportunity in helping continuing ed and non-credit divisions grow their reach, or in helping the broader institution better serve adults seeking degree programming?

Kayla Manning (KM): There’s no single answer to that. For us, it’s important to understand an institution’s goals: where they want to go, how they want to grow and what opportunities they have. From there, we can help them build a strategic roadmap to meet those goals based on their unique brand and identity.

Keith Lewandowski (KL): It depends on each individual institution, but for CE units that have historically been focused on workforce training, one challenge may lie in how to scale up. These units tend to operate on a local level—for certain programs, they may even be competing with the vocational school down the road. How can we help them scale beyond that local market?  How should they formulate a strategy to meet next-generation workforce needs? What are their opportunities to move into different channels such as online delivery?

On the traditional side, guidance will also be customized, but for most institutions there will be opportunities to grow or expand in the non-traditional space. Looking at their current strengths and internal expertise is always a good starting point.

Evo: Do you see a significant difference in what an institution would need to recruit adults into a degree program versus what an institution would need to recruit adults into a non-credit or continuing ed program?

KM: Those two recruitment strategies aren’t as different as one might imagine. In both cases, you have to recruit your students in a way that makes sense for your program, your brand and your audience. You need to understand the value of what you’re trying to relay and focus on the assets that resonate with that particular audience. In both cases, you need to back up your recruiting efforts with data.

We’ve seen many recruitment efforts go digital for online and non-traditional students because the standard methods of recruitment—having prospective students visit the campus, supplying print materials to your local high school—don’t translate for a working adult who’s trying to access information. By starting the recruitment funnel with marketing efforts in the digital space—giving them access into the area where they’re going to consume knowledge in the future—institutions can better target the audience and persona that best meets the specific demographics of non-traditional individuals that will be successful students at your school.

This also allows you to easily pivot your marketing strategy to provide different information, should you find that students are looking for different resources than they were yesterday. Going digital allows you to provide information to non-traditional students as quickly as they’re looking for it, so they can make decisions in real time.

Again, I don’t think this is drastically different for traditional and non-traditional programs. No matter what, you should do foundational research to ensure that you know the messaging that’s necessary and the information that’s going to incentivize a student to enroll. Based on that information, deploy marketing efforts and an enrollment strategy that meets the needs of that specific group.

Evo: How do support structures for non-traditional learners differ from those needed to support the success, persistence and graduation of traditional students?

KL: Quite simply, non-traditional learners are different in many ways from traditional undergraduate audiences, so you need to establish tailored support services and structures that meet their unique needs. It’s also important to note that, for some adult learners, it has been several years since they were last in school, so part of their challenge is basic—getting them used to the cadence of being a student again.

One important difference is the time available to an adult learner. They are often working during the day while also balancing life responsibilities. That means they might not be available during normal business hours to visit the bursar’s office, for instance, or if they do come to campus during the day it’s likely they’re taking time off work to be there. It’s important for institutions to be aware of this and adapt accordingly. I’m sure that any institution that has tried to serve non-traditional learners with traditional-only services and hours has felt the pain, both in terms of complaints and retention metrics.

Life also gets in the way for adult learners more so than for traditional students, and it’s common to find that they need to take a semester off. Institutions need to have strategies in place to make sure that these individuals only stop out for one semester and it doesn’t turn into three or four because, at that point, they are highly unlikely to re-enroll.

Finally, non-traditional students expect a quick response. Their time is at a premium and they know they have many options for their education. A strong student service mentality is critical for all students, but that is particularly true for adult learners.

Evo: Does an otherwise traditional institutionmeaning an institution looking to bring students into degree programming—need to develop unique, specific programs and services designed for adults, or can they bring adult students into pre-existing programs and services that were designed for traditional learners?

KL: Every institution is going to be unique, but generally speaking, existing programs highlight an existing area of strength, such as faculty expertise or brand awareness. As a starting point, that’s often a good place to look. You need to explore those core capabilities and think through how you can extend your mission beyond those capabilities. For instance, existing expertise in mathematics may lend itself to an adult-focused program in data analytics. Of course, programs that are going to be extended to adults need to be customized and modified to meet the needs of the non-traditional learner population.

KM: Building from what you know is always a good strategy. If you can use your existing strengths and capabilities as a foundation and build out based on the needs of the market, I think that you’ll have a home run for creating programs that allow you to engage with non-traditional students while delivering a quality curriculum.

Evo: What does the future hold for institutions that don’t look at ways to serve alternative learner populations?

KM: Based on market conditions, they will have issues with their ability to grow. The market for traditional students is declining, and will continue to decline for another decade. That’s going to be a challenge.

That said, it doesn’t mean every institution should dive head-first into the non-traditional market. As we were saying before, your approach should be customized for your institution. It’s important to understand who you are as an institution and be aware of the market segments that you serve, and then determine if there’s an opportunity to expand or whether you should focus your efforts otherwise.

We do annual exercises with our clients to explore the opportunities that might exist for their expansion, and there are many institutions that are primed to move into the non-traditional space. But there are others where it’s just not in their core being to serve non-traditional audiences. It’s a matter of understanding who you are and then working towards goals that are going to help your brand be successful, rather than saying, “We have to change because that’s the only thing to do.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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