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Challenges Facing Institutions Serving Non-Traditional Students Are Growing

AUDIO | Challenges Facing Institutions Serving Non-Traditional Students Are Growing
As adult students become the new ‘traditional’ students in higher education institutions, performance metrics will have to keep pace to accurately reflect the needs and tendencies of this group.

The following interview is with Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College. After acting in the position for a year, Cini made the permanent move into her current post early in 2013. In this interview, Cini shares her thoughts on some of the aspects that differentiate institutions that serve non-traditional students and explains the challenges these institutions will face in the coming years. Furthermore, she discusses how the growth in numbers of non-traditional students will impact the strategies and ideas coming out of institutions serving adult learners.

1. When compared with institutions serving traditional, 18 to 22-year-old residential students, what are the most significant differences one would notice about an institution geared toward serving non-traditional, adult students?

Well, I can jokingly start and say you would not find residence halls on our campus. But even though that’s kind of a joke, it sort of proves the point.

We serve adult students who have their own lives, who probably own homes, have children, full-time jobs, very often, and they’re either finishing their degree or starting a degree that they didn’t have time to do when they were younger.

The differences really have to do with our approach. Whereas traditional-aged students are getting an education but it’s also a socialization experience into adulthood, our students are adults. So we design the curriculum to be workforce relevant. We’ve put supports in place to support our very, very busy students so that they can focus on their degree. And they’re not really as interested in extracurricular kinds of opportunities and doing things outside of the learning experience.

The learning experience is really what they are here for and so we focus everything on the educational experience and supporting our students.

2. Are there any challenges specific to institutions serving non-traditional students?

Well, I would say, yes, there’s several.

One is, when you have students whose primary role is not being a student in an educational experience, you have to really design curriculum and help support them so that they can do it all. A traditional-aged student, again, living on a college campus; their job is to go to school, even if they have a part-time job in addition.

For our students, very often, going to finish their degree ends up being their third job. Once they’ve come home from their real job and then they work with their family, put their kids to bed, then it’s time to go to school. So, we need to be more flexible and accessible in how we offer our programs. And, we also have to make sure that our costs remain affordable because it is hard for an adult student to find that extra tuition once they’ve taken care of everything else in their lives; paying for tuition is just an added burden. So, those are some of the things that make us different.

3. Do you expect these challenges to remain over the next decade?

The challenges will remain and I would say they are increasing every day. And, so, you see what is now being called “the perfect storm” in higher education.

People are questioning what they get for their tuition dollars. There was a time when we could increase — and I don’t mean we; the higher education industry, if you will — could increase tuition to cover increasing costs pretty much every year and there wasn’t a big backlash. Well, it’s now at the point where everyone is saying, “Enough! I can’t pay anymore in tuition.” And the federal government is asking questions and, so, keeping tuition affordable is one of the things I think that all institutions will be looking at into the future.

And, connected with that is this concept of value add. … “If I come to your university to complete my degree, what am I really learning?” This is what our students are asking. Very often what they’re interested in is learning something that will lead to a good job so that they can take care of their families and become a more productive member of the community. Being able to show what students have learned, learning outcomes, learning achievements; very important.

And I think the third thing would be, … pretty much all students don’t have the leisure, if you will, anymore to take years and years and years to complete a degree. So, our adult students — but I think even traditional-aged students — are looking for ways that they can get their degree done in a period of time that they’ve set aside, whether it’s four years or five years. The days of, “Oh, I can take the 10-year plan,” really are dwindling. Nobody has that time anymore.

4. As increasing numbers of states begin to consider performance-based funding mechanisms, will institutions that serve non-traditional students need to change their operations to suit the new funding expectations, or lobby to have the metrics measuring performance changed?

I think the latter is really the way to go. Most of the institutions like ours are already trying to reach out to our states and federal organizations that look at this sort of thing.

We can’t be held to the same standards that, say, a traditional institution where students come in their freshmen year and they leave in five years or four years, rather, are held to.

Now, at the same time that I say that — because adults students go to school part-time for the most part — while we shouldn’t be held to the same standard because the students have a lot more competition in their lives to their time, I think there’s also a responsibility on us to help think through new models so that students, adult students, don’t need to take years and years and years to get their degree. And I think you’re seeing more with online education and accelerated programs, in that case that, that can help.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the challenges and opportunities that exist for non-traditional institutions over the next 10 years?

What we have been doing and what you might call non-traditional education is increasingly going to be the key work of higher education in the next five to 10 years. And here is what I mean by that.

We are very quickly moving into a time where our traditional student in college is not traditional-aged and not living on campus. And, so, the majority of our students now — who are in college or in universities — are non-traditional. So, the things we’re learning to do — keeping the costs low, achieving better learning outcomes and helping students to accelerate their time to competition — that’s the work that we’re going to be doing and more institutions will be doing it.

This is a very exciting time to be in higher education and it’s really nice to see that some of the ideas that places like UMUC have been working on for years, our time has come and people are looking to us to be a leader as we move into the future.

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