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Improving Access Flexibility to Meet the Expectations of Today’s Students

The EvoLLLution | Improving Access Flexibility to Meet the Expectations of Today’s Students
While for-profit institutions need to create greater levels of transparency to improve consumer confidence, public institutions need to focus more on adapting to serve the needs of today’s student-consumers.

As the higher education market has become more competitive, and as funding for public institutions has plummeted, the competition between non-profit and for-profit institutions has gone through the roof. However, both sets of institutions could learn from one-another when it comes to meeting the expectations of today’s more discerning student-customer. In this interview, Jodi Robison discusses what today’s students expect from their colleges and universities and shares her thoughts on a few of the trends that leading institutions are highlighting to meet these heightened demands.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have student expectations and demands shifted in recent years?

Jodi Robison (JR): Evolution and change in education, particularly in higher education, is an arduous and painstaking process. Many philosophies and beliefs are very well entrenched in both the education industry and the government regulation of the industry. The proliferation of the internet has the power to completely disrupt and challenge those ideas, though the education industry and even the government may not be responding as quickly or as enthusiastically as the technology and the student population.

Student views of the possibility of getting an education on their time and according to their needs have increased rapidly and intensely. In my work experience, the expectation that I have found that impacts all the others is that students expect to be treated as a premier customer. They want quick straightforward answers and solutions to their questions and concerns, as opposed to recitation of strict policies and traditions that have generally made them feel that a university degree is out of reach or impractical.

This shift in the student-institution relationship means that the education industry also needs a shift from thinking of students as their products to mold, to respecting them as their customers whom they are anxious to serve. I think of it as becoming a university of many individual students.

Assessment practice is a major part of this service, and a big shift in student expectations is occurring in this domain as well. After literally years and years of standardized, one-size-fits all testing methods, students are beginning to demand more transparency in testing practices and want the validation of the learning to align more authentically to the skill or knowledge being tested and its relevancy in the workplace. Students, particularly adult learners, want validation for the knowledge and skills they have acquired naturally through working and living. One of the ways higher education can make this happen is through assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they already know and can do in a given subject, without having to endure hours of meaningless seat time as a measure of learning. With the vast array of knowledge available to anyone with internet access, validation of learning and knowledge is the more crucial concern than how that learning and knowledge was acquired, or at least in the coming years it will be and should be. Students expect the freedom to direct their own learning, to be strategic about their learning, and to do so with as little disruption to their regular life and duties as possible. Self-directed learning builds academic confidence, which will lead to students who are also leaders, qualified to “get started” with their assigned duties from the first day of work.

Affordability is another student expectation. Students are looking for educational solutions that fit their budgets in both money and time. As consumers do in every other market, students expect a high-quality education at an affordable price. Leveraging the cost-free learning resources on the internet is one way that the cost of earning a degree or a certificate can be reduced. Of course, this approach opens the door, and rightly so, to discussion on “soft skills” that aren’t generally taught directly, but that are essential to producing student autonomy and employability, not the least of which skills is information literacy.

Evo: Why is it imperative that higher education institutions shift to address these changes?

JR: The altruistic answer to this question is because education is customer service industry, and the end goal should not be producing scholars who publish articles and attract large sums of research grants and prestige to their institution, but building self-reliant, lifelong learners.

The more practical answer is that despite the oil and water mix of educational and business practices, the bottom line is that you can’t deliver quality education without minding the store. This is to say, it’s critical to devote attention and strategic planning to the business of running a school.

As such, it is imperative that the education industry responds to these market shifts in order to remain solvent and sustainable. Funding and accountability are huge drains on government resources, and institutions of higher learning that are funded by the government are not agile enough to respond to consumer expectations shifts to remain afloat without the government subsidizing them, so it’s always a balancing act. For-profit higher education institutions have different impediments to overcome. The fierce competition for students has led in some cases to unethical marketing and other practices by some for-profits, which has led to skepticism, distrust and outright contempt by some for the for-profit university model.

So both ends of the spectrum have impediments to overcome and students have been caught in the middle. However, since it is students who really matter in this equation, the only acceptable and feasible solution is to respect and address the expectations of students.

Evo: What aspects of the for-profit model and what aspects of the public-model should institutions strive to highlight in serving today’s more customer-minded student with high expectations?

JR: For-profit universities must become more transparent. The skepticism and perception that all for-profit universities are only interested in profit at any price has definitely blemished their value. This raises the standard for the rest of the for-profits whose aim is to bring better educational opportunities to learners. For-profit universities need to focus on making their mission, purpose and practices visible to all stakeholders. For-profits will also have to make the reasoning behind choosing to be a for-profit university very clear, in other words they will need to build a case for choosing that status. There are many things to consider when building a university, but not all of those things are understood by consumers at large. For-profit universities need to do a better job of getting the word out about the benefits of choosing that type of university over non-profits.

Student service and individualized attention will make the difference for for-profits. The isolation of online learning can discourage even the most motivated students. It is important for all online programs to have plenty of student support. Often, a decline in engagement and satisfaction for online students occurs between the second and fourth terms. This may be the case because the excitement of having a new adventure wans as the reality of fitting education into an already full life begins to become more stressful. It is important that online programs are ready for this and have already prepared by building trust between the student and the faculty and staff who have shown themselves ready to provide consistent support.

Public institutions are deeply entrenched in two main areas: tradition and government accountability. Neither of these facts lends itself to rapid change. Traditional institutions have a deep tradition of being the guardians of imparting knowledge and producing well rounded graduates. The nobility of this tradition is real, but not always practical in the present climate. Today’s students—especially non-traditional adult learners—see themselves as consumers as much as students. As such, they are looking for the best return on their investment, and this does not refer solely to monetary costs. Today’s learners are very aware of the value of their time. Public universities—as well as the institutions that govern and fund them—are going to have to focus more on the value of what will be learned at their institutions than on the number of hours (seat-time) that it will take to earn a degree. Some of the solutions that public universities are starting to pilot, particularly in their online programs, are quick-to-earn accomplishments (like stackable credentials) that allow students to earn certifications or similar credentials along their way to earning a degree. Such credentials may increase student earning power or employability incrementally. A major detriment in educational models that focus on credit hours is the time element for most learners. Another issue that student-consumers are paying more attention to is transfer credit and credit for experiential learning, in other words, students look for credible means to reduce the amount of time and money required to earn a degree. This is an issue that will have to be addressed in order for more traditional universities to keep up with student demands and expectations. Quite simply, more traditional institutions will have to become more customer service-oriented.

Evo: What are a few of the more widespread changes institutions are putting into place to address these market shifts?

JR: The obvious answer is the creation of online, asynchronous learning opportunities. Another change is a broader acceptance of competency-based educational practices.

Competency-based education models are not focused on how learning takes place, but validating that it has. Innovative assessment—authentic, unbiased assessment—is a large part of meeting current student expectations. Competency-based learning models may also be one way to reduce costs and thus increase affordability.

Blended learning models are also becoming more widespread. This change is constantly evolving, as educators seek to find the correct balance for students between live interactions and independent learning.

Evo: How do you think these changes will continue to evolve over the next year?

JR: Change in educational practice does not happen quickly and without significant resistance. Government bodies will find it hard to relax control over education and educators will continue to be skeptical of innovation. These elements will continue to slow down evolution, but demand will foster change. Therefore, over the next year as leadership changes and student demands increase, higher education will continue to study, tweak, and through trial and error, seek to find balance in these areas: harmony in the business-education paradigm and the blend between independent asynchronous-synchronous face to face learning.

More public institutions will build more online learning events and for-profit institutions will work to establish reputable practices at affordable pricing. Students in their search for the program and institution that best fits their expectations will become more informed consumers.

These are the forces that will facilitate the growth and evolution of higher education.

Evo: Do you think any of these current trends will start to decline in popularity over the next year?

JR: I don’t expect any of these trends to decline in the next year or even the next five years, but they will evolve as student-consumers become more informed and challenges to traditional practices prove effective. The key factor in all of this is for educational institutions and educators themselves to be less rigid and more student-focused. We need less concern and attention on holding educators accountable for standardized outcomes and more intentional focus on building high-quality programs at affordable pricing for any and all who want to learn.

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