Published on 2012/05/17
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.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2012/05/17 at 5:12 am

I couldn’t agree more with your secret shopper idea. How can you possibly know what prospective students’ first impressions of your institutions are if you don’t kick the tires yourself?

That said, are you trying to sell flash over content? Because I don’t think that will ever fly with a discerning prospective adult student

Ingrid Ramos Nakamura 2012/05/17 at 10:26 am

Yes, Secret Website Shopper of Your Own College…everyone should do it! We should give it an acronym, that always makes things more popular–SWSOYOS.

To answer your question Brian, I think without some flash, often customers don’t get to the content. But whether or not to have the flash, or how much of it to have, that is really a brand question. Some school’s have flashier brands than others. I would let the institution decide on what type of facade their advertising or marketing should have, and how close or far from their core branding they wish the message to be.

For example, have you seen the new Colorado Technical University commercials? These guys must have paid a good penny for traditional TV ad space. And somewhat following in Phoenix and Kaplan’s footsteps, they used pathos to sell a (not so) new way of learning. But what they did differently, in my opinion, is add some differentiators to catch our attention.

So, is this commercial flashy?? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq6AIFIeFk8

Vince Rizzi 2012/05/17 at 5:24 pm

New Traditionals should be officially recognized by the higher education community when discussing categories or segments of the student and/or prospective market.

The term “traditional student” can no longer be defined by the age of the individual, but must also include the methods and tools individuals use to explore postsecondary education from search to matriculation.

It could be argued that the 18 year old high school graduate, as well as the 35 year old working woman or man can both be New Traditionals. Why? Because they use many of the same tools to find the right college. It may even be said that advertising an institutions features and benefits may be very much the same for all New Traditionals, but I am not suggesting that an institution should provide the same information to tehm. There is still a need to provide information that is relevant to the individuals needs, goals, challenges etc…

A great way to learn of these individual hot buttons is to use the secret shopper methodology. How about having a student worker or the high school aged child of a staff member at the institution secret shop to get the schools response to a younger New Traditional, then do the same with an older staff member. Companies secret shop themselves and competitors all the time and there is not reason higher education institutions in this “students are our customers” marketplace should neglect this effective marketing strategy.

Marianne Dombroski 2012/05/17 at 5:43 pm

I’m all about consistency so I immediately checked out CTUs website to see if the style and messaging was consistent. If, during the video clip, the name of the school was bleeped out, I’d have pegged it for a school like Full Sail. Well done. Also, does the student experience match the promise? Is CTU really brimming to the gills with attractive, motivated hipster types? If the experience is inconsistent, students will tell the story.

Maybe it’s my “traditional” background, but I find the websites to be a little aggressive and distasteful with the constant calls to action – “chat now!” – “call us!” – “sign up!” But there must be some success to it because so many non-traditional schools employ these techniques.

“Secret shopping” can certainly unmask many inconsistencies and plain gaffes in the student experience. I’d go one step beyond, and add this to the secret shopper to-do list: Sign up when prompted to “sign up!”. “Chat” when the site begs you to chat. See how quick the admissions office is to respond. Are they contacting you soon, but not too soon? Often, but not too often? How does it feel to you, secret shopper, as a prospective student?

In closing, I recently (@3 months ago) requested a packet of information for an adult degree program from a traditional institution, about a program I am genuinely interested in. Crickets. Nothing. Not even a “we received your request” auto-reply. I have not re-requested the information.

Matthew Ulmer 2012/05/18 at 9:56 am

The experience a prospective student has on a website is extra important when that student is considering an online education, or even online classes. The obvious thought: If they can’t even get their website right, how could they possibly teach me online?

Vince mentions that a New Traditional could be 18 or 35, and maybe he’s right — so how do you appeal to both audiences at once? Well, much has been said about what attracts millenials in advertising, and I don’t think it’s exclusive to the young’ins. Authenticity, personal experiences, storytelling — these tactics will appeal to anyone, especially in an environment like higher education, where it all comes down to the “feel” of the place.

Great article, oh coiner of important new buzzwords.

Let me offer a response to this article and my thoughts for CPE and online leaders serving “new traditionals” or adult students:

With regard to the adult student web-based experience, I think the experience is even more important for the main reasons that adult students have less time to waste and more at stake. Unlike the 18 – 23 y.o. cohort lifestyle (which my nephew is enjoying), adults are dealing with work/life tension, many of whom don’t have enough hours in a day. In addition, they generally have more economic interest, investing their money and time in education to remain competitive in the workplace. Because of these two drivers, adult students expect a great experience from start to finish. From basic things like searching Google for a specific course or program and finding the right information in one place, much like you would when shopping on Amazon. To providing easy access to resources and information needed to make career decision about a course or program and simplifying the enrollment experience. Adults cannot afford to go to three or four different buildings to do all this. For my nephew, it’s an adventure and something to Facebook about.

Now to do something about this, IHMO, requires a holistic approach focused on changing processes and providing data to enable make a meaningful impact in experience. The good news is more CPE and online executives are stepping up and changing how they do business with adult students. I’ve done Google searches and secret shopping at UNC Charlotte Continuing Education and Stanford Center for Professional Development…I’m sure there are other good stories. The time is now.

Thanks, Ingrid, for sharing your perspective!

Jon Nash, VP Sales, ConnectEDU 2012/05/18 at 11:39 pm

I could not agree more with your advice on responsible marketing and quality education for new traditionals paying great dividends for both learners and institutions. These guiding principals will also lead to lower two year cohort default rates. Thank you Ingrid!

Adam Troy 2012/05/29 at 4:14 pm

Bravo, its amazing how many admissions offices get lost in the details of their newest CRM and forget the basics of understanding their audience. Website analytics and surveys can only go so far, and the secret shopping test is a necessary component to an effective recruiting program. The new traditionals approach the search process from a different perspective and have different needs which have to be reflected in design, marketing, and communications: value, substance, and goal-orientation. It is also important for each school to understand the relevant segments of their prospective student population and not simply apply national trends.

Kristopher Patterson 2012/06/21 at 2:41 pm

Ingrid, it all goes back to the principles you always used articulate, know your audience, articulate your messaging and positioning truthfully and in manner that resonates with your demographic — following these principles will always lead to lower two year cohort default rates!!!

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