Engagement Evolved: Serving Non-Traditional Students Effectively and Seamlessly
Modern learners are in a challenging spot. They’re walking toward an evolving job market and need to find education pathways that allow them to upskill and reskill as they continue along their lifelong learning journey. And they have incredibly high expectations for the quality of engagement they receive from higher education providers. Institutions not only need to be able to adapt to this change, but also deliver the modern and seamless experience students expect. In this interview, Brian Kibby discusses the engagement gap between modern institutions and their learners, reflects on the importance of personalization to delivering a high-quality learner experience and shares his insights on the evolving role career services has to play in supporting a successful future for higher education.
EdUp Experience: Your personal journey through higher education was non-traditional, can you talk a little bit about that?
Brian Kibby (BK): One of the things I’ve been passionate about my whole life is the impact that a decent education can have on you. One of the reasons I am here is because I had access to a community college, outside of my army base, when I was 17. Having access to the community college system provides many of us a chance at second chances—and at achieving our dreams.
I’m really passionate about lifelong learning and the new traditional student because of what it’s done for me. As Oprah Winfrey would say, “Pay it forward every day.” I really try hard to do that.
EdUp Experience: Can you tell us about the process of consulting with a college or university about their website presence?
BK: As you know, there’s so much going on in education today. We all know the issues around student loan debt and enrollment declines—there’s more pressure to deliver consumer-based and personalized experiences for students.
The real issue is that colleges and universities are not there yet.
As Hemingway said, things happen “Gradually, then suddenly.” In higher education, we’re in the “suddenly.” If we don’t have more forward-thinking college and university leaders, the decline will really accelerate. The predictions we heard from Clayton Christensen and others are really coming true—we’re already seeing more and more colleges and universities merge or go out of business.
Schools need to think and behave the way they teach the students to think and behave. With Amazon, Netflix or even your local store—the first place your customer is going to land is your website. You have to make their experience frictionless and highly-personalized as soon as they arrive.
So, what we do is work with schools to personalize the experience through AI, MI, machine learning and other kinds of things. That’s where it starts—delivering on the front end. Students should only be thinking about the great courses and the great educators available at their institution of choice—they shouldn’t be focusing on pushing through a difficult experience.
EdUp Experience: For those of us in administration, in practical terms, can you tell us about some of the things you’re looking for when you look at a website? What you want to see?
BK: The vast majority of students don’t always know what they want. That means when someone lands on your website, you want to quickly understand what that student’s interest may be—what kind of organizations they may want to join, what their academic strengths may be, and where their pathway leads—and then have that student get on their path fairly quickly.
When you do that, they will engage further with (and across) your institution in a very personalized way. If you don’t do that, they’ll drop pretty quickly and try another school. You have to pique their interest quickly.
When students are looking at schools, they start as we all do—through referrals from friends and family. They then go directly to a school’s website to figure out their return on investment for an education. Ultimately, they go to college because they want a job. And they want a good paying job. Students today, when evaluating spending $100,000 or more, want a rich experience. The school’s website has to pretty quickly help them understand how the course or program they’re looking at is going to take them from a learner to an earner.
EdUp Experience: The whole credentialing market is growing in popularity as institutions are looking at non-credit, continuing education and professional development. But there isn’t a lot of recognition from employers on what is and isn’t valuable. How should employers think about lifelong learning and the upskilling/reskilling necessity in today’s labor market?
BK: In my experience, it’s all valuable. I recognize there is a lot out there in terms of certificate programs, workforce development programs—it all adds up and it all counts. If students, adult learners and the new traditional learners show an affinity towards continuous learning, they’re going to get higher.
It is a challenge for students when they come out of school holding a non-specific degree, like a liberal arts degree. But if they give themselves a leg up with an additional badge, certification or stackable degree, it all adds up.
As an employer, I’m interested in whether the individual shows me that they’re a lifelong learner—that they’re committed to upskilling. I’m less concerned—and I think most employers are less concerned—about whether the credential is formal or accredited.
The fact that they went to a college or university, and they got an additional badge or they engaged in additional learning—that’s what we look for. Those people are going to get a leg up, and we don’t see enough of those students today.
EdUp Experience: As we begin to serve this new demographic of students that are so career-focused, how do we get schools to integrate Career Services in more meaningful ways?
BK: Finding ways of better-integrating Career Services is a really important issue that is becoming even hotter.
Today, fewer than 8% of students will ever visit their Career Services Center. That is slowly changing, and it has to change.
One of the issues we have today, with students’ concerns over ROI, is that there can be a massive return on investment—but they often don’t know how to market themselves. They don’t know how to make use of their great education.
We can start changing this in their freshman year through the Career Services Center. If we teach students before they enter college how they can make the most of their college education—and that it can start with the Career Services Center—a lot of the ROI concerns about college education go away.
If I were a president, I would make it mandatory for freshmen to have serious orientation into the Career Services Center before they enroll. It’s critical for colleges and universities to show that you really care about where students land. Go beyond showing statistics like “97% of our students are employed six months after they graduate.” Everyone has a job pretty much right after they graduate, but it doesn’t mean that they’re making enough money to pay back their student loans or to live. Two out of every five bachelor’s degree holders are underemployed in their first jobs after graduation.
We need that level of passion around Career Services. About 25% of Career Services leaders now report directly to a provost. We’re slowly getting there but we need to get there faster.
We should also be marketing opportunities for students to extend their education at their college or university, including digital certificate and badging programs. I don’t know why they don’t do this. There’s usually a silo between the degree and non-degree sides of the house, which is crazy.
In truth, a great college or university should hire a chief marketing officer like they hire their basketball coach and market how awesome the entire university can be for a student’s entire life.
Obviously, I’m passionate about it because I care about people’s ability to achieve their full potential. About 99.9% of people never do achieve their full potential because they don’t get that guidance upfront—and it starts in the Career Center.
EdUp Experience: Why not make Career Services your one-stop shop for mentoring, retention, everything we need to do?
BK: You’re thinking exactly the right way. And this goes back to the tremendous return on investment of a college education. We all need help unlocking the potential of education.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a young woman who was referred to me, a friend of a friend. She is a senior at NYU with a 3.5 GPA, and she’s a starting forward on the soccer team. She’s smart, she’s edgy. So, I referred her to a really cool SaaS company, and she said, “Hey, I’m going to send this email to this person you introduced me to who runs the entire New York office.” And I said, “You can’t send that. Here is how you prepare an email: you go to his LinkedIn and look at all the posts. You look at his activity, you look at what he comments on. You Google his videos. Do all that, and then you prepare an email.”
The reason I give the example is because they came back with, “The email that we got from that candidate, Brian, was the best we’ve ever received.”
A great Career Center can help students understand how to unlock the power of basic things like having productive 10-minute conversations or using LinkedIn. Now, that student will get a job easily, but she had a coach and mentor. Almost no one has access to that kind of help.
What’s more, you can keep your alumni engaged if they donate and you then give them access to your courses within the School of Continuing Education. That’s a different way to connect with your powerful alumni base instead of annoying them by always asking for $50 here and there—or asking for a building if someone becomes a billionaire. That’s not interesting.
But working with your alumni and giving back to them is. They already paid you $100,000 for their education, and now you want more money? How about we give back to them in the form of more education and more access! And when you do that for people, they’re going to be really generous with you.
In higher education, we’re teaching these things—but we don’t do these things. But more and more leaders are going to wake up. Because what’s going to happen here is that we’re going to unlock the full potential of our workforce. The colleges and universities that don’t, guess what’s going to happen to them.
EdUp Experience: What do you think the future of higher education looks like?
BK: One of the reasons that students don’t get the full return on their investment has to do with a lack of personal finance education. There is no reason for $1.7 trillion in student loan debt in the United States because there are tremendous choices today.
The average community college program costs $4,000 a year. So why would students pay five, six or seven times that to go to a for-profit or even to an elite school if they can’t afford it? We need to educate parents and students on personal finance before they enter into a college or university, and not just pitch them on loans.
The focus on Career Centers—early, often and throughout the education experience—is right on target. We need to go beyond that to bring colleges and universities together, beyond just the degree side of the house, so individual institutions start working as a family to unlock their full potential. That way, they can unlock the full potential of students.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Listen to the full interview here.
Author Perspective: Business