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Significant Forces Changing the Higher Education Market: Impact of Non-Traditional Students

The EvoLLLution | Significant Forces Changing the Higher Education Market: Impact of Non-Traditional Students
Though rankings reward institutions for succeeding in serving traditional-age students with traditional programs, institutions need to be innovative and forward-thinking in order to secure long-term viability and differentiation in today’s competitive marketplace.

The landscape of higher education has experienced more change in the past decade than it has at any time since World War II. There are a number of influences that have fostered this change, with the most significant being the Post-9/11 GI Bill afforded to our veterans of the global war on terrorism, which allows this unique population to pursue higher education opportunities. Other changes that have contributed to the mosaic include Generation X’ers seeking career advancement through higher education, and Millennials—or so called “digital natives”—who bring much higher tech-savvy capabilities (and expectations) to the table, the proliferation of online higher education, and the push for more competency-based education programs.

Once viewed by many as a pariah, online higher education is increasingly being embraced by traditional brick-and-mortar universities that realize their own future stakes in higher education will be within the online world. Population demographics, as seen in student populations, are showing a movement from traditional college enrollment to learning at a distance. Many Millennials are balancing work and family responsibilities in addition to college. As the Lumina Foundation cites, “Today’s students are struggling to navigate an outdated higher education system.” Lumina goes on to show that 58 percent of students work while attending college and another 26 percent are raising children. This shift in student demographics has a direct impact on higher education.[1] They go on to make the logical conclusion that a direct relationship exists between higher education and income capability. The change, therefore, is not that people realize the importance of higher education, but in the expectation that it be made available to them in the mode to which they are most accustomed.

There is little question of the impact of the Post-9/11 GI Bill on higher education. Increasingly, active, guard, reserve, separated, or retired service members are using their higher education benefits to pursue postsecondary credentials. Also increasing the growth in military students is the annual “downsizing” threat from Washington. Military members bring tangible leadership and technical stills to the table. Translating their skills to higher education has been difficult using the traditional higher education model.

Both the American Council on Education (ACE) and The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) provide avenues to recognize military training and award credit, but this still does not address the skill competencies military members have learned through their careers. Enter competency- based education (CBE) and measurement. Like the earlier near-pariah status of online learning, the whole notion of measuring competency against college learning outcomes or assessments was once viewed as illegitimate. This is not the case today and many traditional universities are working to develop their own competency-based programs using prior-learning assessment (PLA) tools.

In his study, “The Landscape of Competency-based Education, Enrollments, Demographics, and Affordability,” author Robert Kelchen states, “There is still no consensus definition of CBE, even among the institutions that provide it.”[2] This fact, in and of itself, presents a potential hurdle to higher education programs as we seek to define the competency-based education boundaries. As Cathy Sandeen noted in her Fall 2014 American Council on Education article, “competency-based education seems to have become a media darling, with near-daily coverage about this pedagogical model’s new programs.” She adds that competency-based models of education are not a new phenomenon in higher education and have been around for years.[3] The important thing to remember is that the students seeking CBE programs impact the universities working to meet the demands of these non-traditional students.

The changing student demographic also results in the expectation of more ways to attend school. Up until five years ago, most traditional universities shied away from offering online programs for a number of reasons. Whether due to pedagogical concerns or learning management system capabilities, the times have changed and nearly all state and private universities offer some online courses or degree programs. In a report co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) in 2014, the authors noted that although the pace in online learning growth had slowed, it still accounted for three-quarters of all higher education enrollments.[4] There is little question the Millennials and Gen-X populations have impacted this shift, just as the military and certain service professional career positions have impacted CBE programs.

As we move through the second decade of the 21st century, the landscape of higher education will continue to change, and if an institution is not agile enough to keep up, they will see enrollments decrease.

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[1] Lumina Foundation (2016). Today’s Reality. Retrieved on 3 February 2016 from

[2] Kelchen, Robert (2015). The Landscape of Competency-Based Education, Enrollments, Demographics, and Affordability. Center on Higher Education Reform. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved on 3 February 2016 from

[3] Sandeen, Cathy (2014). Competency-Based Education Is Not the “New MOOC”. American Council on Education. Retrieved on 3 February 2016 from

[4] Seamon, Jeff (2014). Babson Study: Distance Education Enrollment Growth Continues, But at Slowest Rate Ever. Retrieved on 3 February 2016 from