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Creating Value by Delivering On The Varied Expectations of Non-Traditional Students

Personalization through understanding the unique and various factors different students deem valuable, and delivering on those ends, is a defining feature of institutions that serve non-traditional students.

There has been much in the press recently regarding the need for higher education to provide a return-on-investment (ROI), and it has given me pause to consider how changes in our society have impacted what traditionally has been the result of a postsecondary education investment. As the president of Colorado State University-Global Campus, which was created to address the unique needs of non-traditional learners, I see the demographic shift in college students and how it has helped spur higher education leaders to consider what ROI really means to their respective student populations.

For students who are simultaneously working, caring for family members, and going to school, securing their intended outcome—whether that’s new knowledge and skills, a certificate or a degree—is only one facet of the ROI they are expecting. It used to be that when someone went to college to get a degree, it was assumed that he or she would get a job and enjoy a better lifestyle after graduation. Over the last decade however, we have seen that just getting a degree is not the golden ticket to a guaranteed job and a more comfortable future, and yet students are still seeking out higher education opportunities. Does this mean they all still expect to immediately land a job and gain a proportionate increase in pay, thereby evaluating ROI in the same way that they would with other investments? My interaction with our students has led me to conclude that is not the case.

There is a more implicit value students are seeking from their postsecondary experience. Some of our students at CSU-Global are working to achieve their personal goal of a degree that they started years ago, while others want their children to see through their actions that they value higher education. Many are attending to ensure that they are viable in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace. Our non-traditional learners are primarily between the ages of 25 and 64 years old, with an average age of 35. Over 40 percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and 24 percent are from underserved populations. Our students come from all U.S. states and territories and over 42 countries; they are as diverse as the reasons that they are enrolled at CSU-Global. Ultimately, the idea that ROI in higher education means the same thing for every college student is unrealistic. What may be important to one student may not be important to another.

We have also learned that there are a variety of factors that potential students take into consideration when making an investment in their education. Those factors include an institution’s reputation, level of support offered, whether or not they actively help students find a job, and faculty credentials. However, only a student who either fails to reach, or achieves, their intended goal will be able to determine whether their higher education experience was “worth it.”

Given CSU-Global’s term-to-term and year-to-year retention rates, and the fact that 96 percent of our alumni are working for pay (at an average of $55,000 or more per year) within a year of graduation, we believe that we are meeting the multiple definitions of the ROI that we have identified as fundamental to CSU-Global. Based on our student interactions, we believe that many of the students who enroll with us are savvy consumers. They understand that the world is highly dynamic and that attending our university will increase the likelihood that they will be more valuable contributors in the workplace.

So in my thinking, it is not so much that CSU-Global or other higher education institutions need to “provide an ROI.” Rather, they need to be able to communicate and deliver on their promises, and then let students determine where they enroll based on the returns they seek. Abiding by the principles of integrity, responsibility and accountability will help our industry rise to meet our current challenges, and most certainly help answer these latest questions surrounding ROI.

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