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Innovating Higher Education with the Adult Learning Cohort Model

Innovating Higher Education with the Adult Learning Cohort Model
The cohort model to adult learning, driven by community and employer needs, could revolutionize higher education and help it adapt to the commoditized marketplace.

The long-held practice of colleges and universities in the United States has been to focus on single, open-enrollment adult students. As colleges and universities seek to grow their adult enrollment, new models must be developed and piloted. After all, continuing to focus exclusively on single, open-enrollment adult students will create cost pressures on tuition, labor and facilities. This is particularly critical in light of the projected five percent decline in traditional college student enrollment.[1]

With a projected demand for more college graduates, a focus on adult college students with innovative access mechanisms will provide a better likelihood of meeting the demand. Cohorts of adult learners, grouped in the context of their companies and/or communities, will provide more value to the individual student and their community. In addition, colleges and universities will have a new delivery model to offer.

Under this new model, companies, community organizations and universities will develop academic partnerships. This sees colleges and universities becoming the vendor of education products and services, in the form of degrees, certificates, badges, corporate training, etc.

The Six Goals of Academic Partnerships for Cohort Learning

When properly developed, academic partnership cohorts have the following six goals:

  1. Provide learning opportunities for all employees consistent with organizations’ and employees’ needs.
  2. Reduce tuition costs through a flat-rate pricing model.
  3. Provide focused, formal learning for participants.
  4. Improve intra-organizational relationships through the use of cohort-based learning.
  5. Develop new organizational skills to create, maintain or eliminate sustainable competitive advantages.
  6. Develop internal course combinations to create specific professionals for projected workplace shortages.

Each of these goals focuses on bringing adult learners together in a non-traditional, higher education learning model. Instead of a company or community sending individual learners to a disparate set of colleges and universities, this model brings learners together under one manageable umbrella. Ideally, the host company or community organization would provide the learning facility, program marketing and on-site support. In exchange, the college or university would generate incremental revenue with a lower cost base that is then shared with the host company or community organization.

The business model is one that provides companies and communities with a focused learning cohort and the college or university with new students.

Four Reasons for Companies and Communities to Take the Learning Lead

1. Companies Understand Employee Training Needs

Large companies (or consortia of smaller companies) and communities know what they need, and they typically have a large pool of potential students. Companies and communities can create three to six course sets or clusters and offer internal certificates for employees to use for better job performance and to prepare for new career opportunities. Properly constructed, certificate programs can build toward a traditional degree.

2. The Market is Ready for Innovation

An increasing number of colleges and universities are willing to innovate to find new sources of tuition income. Both public and private universities are looking for supplemental tuition income. Degree and certificate programs that come from new sources of students are highly valued.

3. Pricing Models Need to Change

Innovating on the pricing structure of degree programs is also important. Student enrollment-based tiered pricing and flat-rate, course-based tuition pricing are two options to consider. If structured properly, companies and communities can have lower tuition costs per student, while colleges and universities are guaranteed a predictable revenue amount over an extended period of time.

4. Higher Education Model Will Adapt to Commoditization

Companies and community organizations can come together to let multiple colleges and universities bid on their business. We could call this the ‘Reverse-Priceline Model.’ Why not operate under the premise that all formal college learning is a commodity? If one college or university vendor wants to charge a higher rate, ask them to demonstrate their justification. If it is based on quality, ask them to demonstrate the incremental difference in quality from one vendor to the next. One consideration to add to your negotiating strategy: ask that faculty used to teach your employees or community members be ranked in the top 25 percent of that institution’s faculty, whether adjunct or full-time.

Cohorts Help Companies and Communities Drive Learning

In the end, the cohort model offers students, companies and communities a directed option to develop focused learning and degree programs. Cohorts of students offer colleges and universities a new source of tuition-paying customers with a lower cost basis than traditional adult students.

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[1] Sara Lipka, “Demographic Data Let Colleges Peer Into the Future,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2014. Accessed at