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Attracting The ‘New’-Traditional Student

Adult learners are discerning and don’t have much time to peruse the selection of education options available. Higher education institutions must ensure that their outward-facing product is attractive enough to drive enrollments from this highly astute group of prospective students. Photo by Anthony Albright.

I like to think it was my idea to call students “the new traditionals.” I won’t tell you when I coined it though, since I am certain you’d prove me entirely wrong—on the point that I originated the term; not on the point that the demo- and psychographics of college students have dramatically changed in the last decade.

Why does this change in student makeup matter? Well, IMHO, it matters on two fronts. (See, you probably don’t even know what that acronym means, “in my humble opinion”—millenials have really done a job on how we communicate, haven’t they?). First, this change impacts how we serve students; second, how we educate them.

The customer experience is a topic that big companies spend millions on. Trust me, I was in advertising. Everything students engage in from the beginning has an effect on whether or not they have a good experience at your institution. And even if students are not going to become big-time alumni donors to, say, your online university, they are still your best advertising. Make them happy, and you’ll fill those seats, virtual and real.

For the new traditional student, the web-based experience can be just as important as for the millenial. So (unsolicited) piece of advice number one: Sit down and go through a “secret shopper” process of your online destinations. You can do this on several fronts. Search for a discipline you are trying to fill, on Google or, goodness forbid, Bing. See if you land at your institution. Or, navigate your sites as a potential or current student and jot down all the things that seem odd or confusing. You are, after all, in the new traditionals’ target demographic.

I think most people will read this advice and say, ‘Gee, thanks marketing and advertising genius.’ But, in my defense, I would conjecture that less than 25% of you have tried this secret shopping experiment on your websites. Am I pulling stats out of thin air? Marketing people do no such thing. But if you think I’m wrong, let me know.

Most people who have the power to change the student customer experience have not been a secret shopper of their own institution’s site. This will be evident by the number of bugs, old links, and web pages that make no sense, which you will encounter when you actually sit down and conduct this experiment.

Now let me scoot on to my second point—that the new makeup of students impacts how we educate them. How do we educate the new traditionals given their demographics and psychographics are different than the students for which there exists the most pedagogical research? Some people will tell you to survey your customers, find out what they want, and give it to them. I generally agree. But in education, we all have a moral obligation to put students first. While it is no Hippocratic Oath, I think we should take our obligation seriously. Just as with 18-21 year old, campus students, you should NOT give them everything they want. What they signed up for is a solid education. You, as the expert, should provide that in a pedagogically significant way.

Adults are more finicky than teenagers—they seem to despise being told what to do, even when they have registered for just that at an institution of higher learning (I bet you are judging me right now for telling you what to do). But we can’t just serve students french fries and ice cream every day. They need a well rounded meal with vegetables and protein too. What good is it if we send our students out into the workforce with less than rounded skills? Again, these very students are our best advertising. So while giving students what they want may fill seats temporarily, it is not a recommended long term business strategy.

In closing, if you remember anything I’ve written here today, remember this…I invented the new traditionals.