ROI and the Post-Traditional LearnerJohn Ebersole | Former President, Excelsior College
Post-traditional learners are growing in numbers across the higher education space and are forcing higher education institutions to reconsider their approach to education and to student service. At the root of this change are some fundamental differences between the post-traditional student and the 18- to 22-year-old learner many institutions are more used to serving. Chief among these differences is the importance post-traditional students place in their return on investment, or ROI.
Post-traditional learners’ sensitivity to ROI
Post-traditional students tend to be older, employed, commuting (if attending a campus-based institution), studying part-time and paying for their education themselves, whether from loans or personal resources. They expect to be treated as equals in the classroom and as paying customers by the institution they are attending. In addition to seeking a quality learning experience, they expect it in other ways, as well. Tutoring, coaching, peer networks, 24/7 library access and periodic feedback make them feel connected, valued as customers and part of a community.
These learners expect a return on their investment of time and money in terms of how their ultimate achievement, the credential awarded, is received in the marketplace. As savvy consumers, they understand that all institutions and all diplomas are not viewed equally. However, as experienced adults, few are relying on brand alone to open the door to opportunity. Their need is for a respected and accepted credential, that, together with their work history will support their advancement or move to another career field. This is the ROI that most seek.
Why traditional institutions fall short in meeting the ROI expectations of post-traditional students
Traditional institutions have long and often distinguished records of serving traditional, adolescent students. Their services, systems and instructional models have been built with this type of student in mind.
The expectations and needs of these very diverse groups are different. One is on-campus, whether they know it or not, to undergo transformation from adolescence to adulthood and to gain skills, knowledge and a credential (usually a degree) that will help them start a career. Ideally, they also gain an understanding of their role in society, the concept of citizenship, and a love for learning.
This experience is markedly different for the post-traditional learner. They do not seek to be part of an institution’s “Greek community,” have no time for campus sports nor extra-curricular activities (and object to the “student activity” fees levied by brick and mortar schools). These consumers want to be treated as adults, extended services in a courteous and caring manner, and made to feel that their tuition dollars are well spent. For example, an “easy A” may not be well received by the mid-career professional who seeks quality instruction and rigorous, thoughtful assessment.
Few institutions have been able to serve both types of consumer well. Only in the online arena have we seen progressive institutions that have succeeded in building adult-serving programs with services that meet expectations.
Improving the educational experience to help customers feel more connected and better served
For traditional institutions that want to switch gears to better serve their post-traditional students, starting with a clean slate helps. That is, creating a separate division or institution to serve the adult learner, such as what Chapman University did with Brandman or Penn State did with its Global Campus.
The “bolt-on approach” of many institutions, whereby they open or create evening classes for older students, rarely provides the quality experience sought. Nonetheless, adding specific support services, and staffing with “Nordstrom quality” personnel can create the kind of experience that hospitals (executive medical services) airlines (“A list” services) and hotels (the home of the concierge) already embrace. Given the rising cost of a degree, the global competition that already exists at the graduate level, traditional higher education needs to up its game if it wants to serve that segment of higher ed that isn’t shrinking. Those that don’t should remember that the post-traditional learners have other institutions to choose from.
Two more things come to mind when thinking about improving the student experience to create value: One specific and one dealing with process.
First, the specific. More and more employers are seeking college graduates with experience as well as what some call “book knowledge.” As one employer put it, “I don’t care what they know, I want to know what they can do.” For many mid-career degree seekers, this isn’t a problem. They already have years of experience doing. What they need is the degree for more senior positions. However, if a student is a re-entry mother, for example, or someone seeking a career change, the ability to prove what they can do often needs to be validated. This is where internships, structured work-study, or competency-related internships can be a real plus. Those institutions that can afford such an option are thought to have a competitive advantage.
The ultimate solution to this issue has a rather obvious answer, though: Ask the students.
Roadblocks to creating an ROI-sensitive institution
For once the answer isn’t “the faculty,” or at least not entirely. Yes, post-traditional learners want to be seen as peers, and not as “students” (in the traditional sense). Those faculty who can’t make this adjustment are not likely to be successful. They need to remember that respect must flow in both directions for a positive relationship.
Equally important is the need for administrators and support staff that understand the needs of the adult learner and who actually care whether someone brings their tuition dollars to them, or takes them somewhere else.
Ultimately, the greatest roadblock here is not one of resources, it is instead one of attitude. “If you want me to study at your institution, act as if you care about me, and not just my dollars.”
Author Perspective: Administrator