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Strategically Planning for the Future of Higher Education: The Importance of Non-Traditional Markets

The EvoLLLution | Strategically Planning for the Future of Higher Education: The Importance of Non-Traditional Markets
As demographics for higher education continue to shift away from 18- to 22-year-old learners, effectively recruiting and retaining non-traditional students will be more important than ever for an institution’s long-term survival and growth.

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 the first installment of this two-part interview, Keith Lewandowski and Kayla Manning discuss the challenging market conditions facing higher education and point to non-traditional students as a strategic growth market that can help institutions weather the storm. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the key challenges that colleges and universities face in trying to recruit non-traditional students?

Keith Lewandowski (KL): First and foremost, non-traditional students tend to behave differently than the average 16- or 17- year-old. They are likely balancing more life commitments, they have work experience, and they might hold credits from other academic institutions.

This different perspective inevitably informs their experience when they’re considering enrolling at a college or university. However, we sometimes see institutions adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy by applying the same recruiting tactics, messaging, and student services to non-traditional students as they would to traditional students. In our view, this isn’t effective—while there are plenty of best practices for recruiting traditional students that can be applied to the non-traditional market, these are two fundamentally distinct market segments that need to be recruited in different ways.

One example would be response time to an inquiring student. It’s typical for an institution to take several days to follow up with a high school student. That can sometimes be appropriate, given that you tend to know their intended start date (though we are proponents of a high-touch, quick response student service model). If they are a high school junior, for instance, you tend to know when they will enroll and how much time you have to communicate value. For a prospective adult learner, on the other hand, their timeframe might be next week or three years from now. It’s much less linear, which underscores the need to quickly engage. Further, many institutions in this space have already adopted a quick response model for inquiring adult learners, so if you don’t respond quickly it’s pretty much a guarantee that another institution has.

That ties into the importance of messaging and differentiating from your competitors. The demographics of higher education are changing: there are fewer traditional-aged high schoolers in the US, and this trend is going to continue for the next decade. This means that some colleges are searching for additional revenue streams, such as providing programming to non-traditional learners.  At the same time, alternative education models (e.g. boot camps) are continuing to emerge.  Overall, the market for non-traditional students is getting much more competitive, and we expect this to continue.

From a messaging perspective, this means that a lot of attention needs to be paid to crafting content that is going to help you to stand out from the crowd. Using generic taglines about convenience and flexibility isn’t going to cut it. As a starting point, prior to launching any type of enrollment marketing campaign, we recommend that an institution start by building personas, identifying what’s most important to non-traditional learners, determining what type of marketing content and imagery is going to resonate, and then testing along the way to continue optimizing efforts.

Evo: How important is the shopping experience when it comes to driving registrations and enrollments for non-traditional learners? As you mentioned, they tend to operate on their own schedule, which is more the behavior of an online shopper than a student.

Kayla Manning (KM): Non-traditional learners do tend to behave differently, and that has implications for how a university engages with them during the recruitment process. The things that resonate with them can be quite different from what resonates for a traditional student.

A lot of online programs are successful in recruiting online learners by building an online community that makes them feel part of the broader traditional campus culture. Having a connection to community—giving them a social space to connect with other students, to talk about their experiences, to hear specific reviews and/or testimonials from other students that have taken online courses with that campus—can really help them understand what their experience will be like and give them a context within which they can see themselves as part of the campus community. That’s really important for reassuring prospective students that they’re going to be a good fit, not only with the online modality, but with the program and school as well.

Evo: From an institutional perspective, why is it important for college and university leaders to find ways to improve their institution’s positioning in non-traditional markets?

KM: All of higher ed is facing the same demographic challenge: a steady decline in the number of high school-age students, which will likely continue over the next decade or so. Growing enrollments in the non-traditional segment will be critical for many institutions’ long-term fiscal survival.

There’s huge opportunity in this space. There are 36 million adult learners in the United States with some college credits, yet no degree. We know that one in every three students takes at least one online course, and recent National Center for Education statistics show that the number of students enrolled exclusively in online programs is on a steady incline.

That said, there’s also huge competition in this space. Traditional colleges and universities are attempting to scale in this space and we’re seeing the emergence of new, technology-enabled forms of delivery such as MOOCs and boot camps.

Institutions need to be able to cut through all of that noise and communicate their value to prospective students. They need to understand their position, understand their competition, and know that they’re going to be met with competition in the non-traditional market. Southern New Hampshire University is probably the most positive example of this: they have grown from a small, private, regional institution to a brand that’s recognized across the country, with students all across the nation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.