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Eight Factors That Should Define Institutional Success in the Non-Traditional Era

The EvoLLLution | Eight Factors That Should Define Institutional Success in the Non-Traditional Era
Without metrics that speak to the needs of the growing (and majority) population of non-traditional students, higher education rankings—especially those geared toward non-traditional areas like online education—will lack in substance.

The start of every new year—right after the holiday season ends—kicks off the start to a new, more combative time of year: ranking season.

Whether it’s the US News online program rankings just released or the more pop culture-oriented rankings like the Emmys, Oscars, etc. people tend to gravitate to a comparative scale for review. It’s human nature; when you encounter of information, you immediately (maybe even subconsciously) begin to rank its importance among other existing ideas you have already internalized.

The primary reason many people recoil at the thought of rankings is that they may not measure what it is appropriate or important. US News ranks online programs by comparing institutions with 40 online students to those with 8,000. Do these comparisons provide adequate decision data? And for whom?

Authors and analysts, from Louis Soares at the America Council on Education, in his white paper Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Higher Education to Goldie Blumenstyk writing in her recent book, American Higher Education in Crisis? make clear the point that the predominant college student is not the 18-year-old straight out high school.

As many as 85 percent of our higher education learners are incorporated into everyday off-campus life, working part or full-time, caring for dependents and/or going to classes part time.

It’s critical that we begin to transform the system by which colleges and universities are ranked to create something more focused on the actual needs of today’s majority learner populations—the non-traditional learner that is rapidly becoming the primary target audience of higher education.

What would be the ranking factors to compare universities and colleges based on their ability to serve and provide access to learning for that non-traditional learner? Let’s look:

Non-Traditional Learner-Centric Ranking Factors

1. Online and Innovative

Look for the incorporation of innovative learning—meaning new learning approaches mixed with new learning technology to maintain quality and reduce costs. Look for online programs that mirror campus-based programming and are a substantial part of the holistic higher ed experience. See if there are full offerings of diverse learning opportunities and modes of access that support the needs of learners of all ages and locations—e.g. part-time, evenings, weekends, on campus and off. Over the long term, identify planning for expansion of learning opportunities that don’t require ongoing development and support of infrastructure—e.g. online and blended.

2. Improved Advising

Differentiate, as Louis Soares does, between students who work and employees who study. All aspects of the higher education environment change when you differentiate between these groups—from recruiting, to admissions, to success coaching, to financial aid, to registration, to curriculum development, to modes of access, to credentials earned. Look for advising that picks up non-traditional learners before (re)admission, and carries them through admission, financial aid, registration, and their full academic efforts all the way to obtaining the credential that is their goal. Identify programs that incorporate learning opportunities with work opportunities in ways that mirror what is expected in the workforce, and in a holistic fashion. Find advising that includes helping find financial aid, blending schedules with work, and understanding workforce needs as academic schedules are developed.

3. Adaptive and Personalized

Identify active movement toward adaptive learning platforms and personalized learning efforts that will allow non-traditional learners to move more quickly through college curriculum but also allow them to customize their learning programs so they fit their clearly identified professional goals. There are a variety of benefits in these approaches. Most non-traditional learners, because of their experience in the workforce, have a defined set of expectations for their involvement in higher education. Their ideas about return on investment are more finely tuned than those of traditional 18- to 24-year-olds. Adaptive learning platforms that allow them a more personalized approach to their learning will move them more quickly through the learning opportunities, increase their learning success, and ultimately may help reduce their overall cost of education. See if MOOCs are offered that help prepare a returning student reenter the academic environment as well as offering preliminary learning opportunities to reinforce the current learning environment expectations.

4. Flexible Credentials

Search out programs that have credentials—certificates and degrees—that are clearly recognized by various aspects of the workforce because they have been more transparently developed with workforce needs, expectations and competencies taken into account.

5. Flexible Curriculum

Find curriculum that is blended and flexible, that is modular and online, that provides access to sub-degree credentials (badges and certificates) that incrementally articulate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This kind of flexibility and articulation allows the learner to ease into the process and redevelop their learning skills incrementally.

6. Contextual Developmental Learning

Since many returning non-traditional learners require developmental learning opportunities—e.g. developmental math— identify programs that incorporate the contextual math needed within a chemistry course rather than in a separate remedial course. This follows the recommendations of the Complete College America program.

7. Prior Learning and CBE

Identify programs that are beginning to consider credit for prior learning within the overall learning process and at least beginning to move toward modular course development with competencies associated with completion of each learning module. These should be competency-based modules that allow linkages that lead to credit and then lead to degrees. Look for curriculum that supports a part-time academic life using competency, prior learning and partial term structures like five- and eight-week partial terms.

8. Affordability

Make sure there is attention to overall affordability issues:

  • Financial aid that addresses the needs of the non-traditional learner
  • Independent course sequences that can be purchased in packages
  • Fixed-price degrees
  • Included child care

Identifying the measurement of these factors will be the next step, but first let’s find factors that truly demonstrate a learner-centric approach.

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