Visit Modern Campus

Understanding the Needs and Expectations of Non-Traditional Students

AUDIO | Understanding the Needs and Expectations of Non-Traditional Students
Most institutions don’t adequately understand the needs and experiences of their non-traditional students — a pattern that has to change as more adults enroll in colleges and universities.

The following interview is with Dave Jarrat, vice-president of marketing at InsideTrack. Jarrat recently spearheaded a research report that provided insight into the reasons non-traditional students applied to, enrolled in, and dropped out of higher education institutions. In this interview, he discusses his findings and shares his thoughts on what they mean for college and university administrators.

1. Your research found adult students are more interested in institutional reputation and convenience than they are in academic program quality. Why do you think this is the case?

It’s generally true that post-traditional students value reputation and convenience more than they do the quality of individual academic programs, but there are certain groups for whom the latter value matters more. Adults attending ground campuses or those attending non-selective programs tend to worry more — or focus more — on the quality of the individual academic program they are inquiring about.

Now, I think for most post-traditional students, the reputation of the university serves as a proxy for the quality of the individual academic programs. Think, for instance, of how employers look at a resume; they look at which institution you went to, not which program you were in, unless you’re in a highly specialized field. So I think students tend to look at that the same way. The university’s reputation is a proxy for the reputation of its programs.

2. Less than 10 percent of students drop out of their programs due to the academic demands, while over a third of students cite the challenges of maintaining their schoolwork in the face of external pressures as their reason to drop out. What can be extrapolated about the average adult student based on this information?

I think what we’re seeing is these are folks who are adding school to an already busy life. The vast majority of them are academically capable of doing the work; it’s life outside of school that’s the obstacle for them.

So, we just need to remind ourselves that for most students — and, in particular, post-traditional students — it’s about life getting in the way, not about their ability to perform academically.

3. What would you say are the most important findings your research unearthed about the tendencies of adult students?

I was surprised to see more and more online students are going to school to start a career. What that tells me is that the online student demographic is starting to skew younger and younger. Obviously, you wouldn’t have older students going to school to start a career unless they had gone straight to raising a family, for instance. …

The other facet that was interesting is post-traditional students attending campus-based programs tend to have more of what we call effectiveness issues — in essence, the ability to follow through on commitments they have made. The reason, I think, is that in an online program, timeliness and discipline is kind of built in; you have to participate in discussion groups a certain number of times, you have to log in regularly. In a campus-based program, you don’t always have those short-term check-ins or enforcement mechanisms. I think, in many cases, students attending campus-based programs let themselves get behind and then have trouble following through on the commitments they have made.

And, then, the third interesting finding was how big of a concern it is — particularly at selective institutions — for students if they believe the word “online” is going to appear on their degree or on their diploma. I think there is still some stigma in the marketplace around the achievement of a degree through an online program versus a campus-based program. And that’s reflected in prospective students inquiring whether or not the word “online” is going to appear on their credential.

4. Along the same lines, what would you say are the most important lessons higher education institutions can learn from your research when it comes to enrolling and retaining adult learners?

I’d say the main takeaway for me would be that most of the issues associated with both the enrollment and retention of post-traditional students can be addressed through positive, proactive, early discussions and raising self-awareness.

If you look at most of the reasons that students drop, it’s because they don’t have a plan in place for how they’re going to succeed, they haven’t done contingency planning around potential obstacles or they have unrealistic expectations either of the program or of what’s going to be expected out of them. Those are all issues that can be resolved in the prospective student phase through meaningful interactions.

Secondly I would, in reviewing this report, look at the differences among the various demographic groups. I think there is a huge opportunity to tailor messaging, to tailor terminology, and so forth for different demographic groups in communicating with them. So, for instance, if you look at the primary concerns regarding online education within this population, males are much more likely to state that … they’re concerned that online learning is a new experience, whereas females will say they have a fear of online learning. Just that little difference in terminology, newness versus fear, makes a big difference.

Also, there are distinct differences between military and non-military, online and ground, and so, it’s important for universities to look at those nuances and tailor both their marketing as well as their student support services to meet different demographic groups.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of making sure you understand your market and your customers when designing programs, and how institutions can really succeed when it comes to enrolling, retaining and graduating adult students?

I think the most important factor is having a mechanism in place to interact with students on a proactive basis and be able to gather information about the student experience and turn that information into insights that decisions makers can use to alter their operations or their programs.

Often times, I think efforts designed to improve student success happen in spurts. There is no regular mechanism for conveying information to students, gathering input, operationalizing that input and then making continuous improvements. Obviously the work that we do with our partner universities around coaching programs forms a good continuous feedback loop for these types of activities, but there are other ways to do it.

I would just encourage universities to look at how they can put in place a platform for continuous improvement versus looking at it as a short-term initiative.

To read the referenced research report by InsideTrack, please click here.

Author Perspective: