Five Ways to Lead in the Competitive Non-Traditional Higher Ed Marketplace
For a university to stand out to non-traditional students in today’s fiercely competitive higher education marketplace, we need to consider the non-traditional student as more than just a learner, but as a whole person with a variety of expectations, needs and demands.
While distance and online learning have been available since the early 1970’s, the competition for such options has increased dramatically as online options became more accessible and more widely accepted. Higher education was standing on the doorstep of flat world thinking as more for-profit online universities emerged, forcing public and private universities to join the distance and online course offerings arena. No longer does the physical location matter. The result? New markets become available, students gain the power of choice, and the higher education marketplace becomes far more competitive.
Historically, higher education has had a lot of trouble defining itself. “Are we an industry?” “Are we businesses?” There are times when industry drives higher education and times when higher education drives industry. As we opened the doors of access to education in the 1960’s, a third driver appeared: The student. While a larger share of the driver’s seat goes to higher education and industry, students’ choice of institutions gives them a portion of that driver’s seat as well. In recent years many institutions have fought for student numbers and suffered shrinking market share due to competition.
So where do we fail to be competitive? In large part this is due to the abhorrence of thinking of a student as a customer. I, myself, cringe at this notion of a student being a customer but the fact is, in some ways they are the customers (at least until they get into the classroom). Recognizing the items below as critical tools with which to compete can help your institution stand out.
1. Clear Brand Messaging
Utilize a clear brand message that tells the students why they need the degree your university offers. This is equally important as career messaging. Non-traditional students will want more answers up front about their future. Considering the millennial generation is the make up of the core of the non-traditional students completing college today, we must recognize and capitalize on what this generation of student’s value. Additionally, we are at a point in time where the amount of information that is being created, shared, and consumed is at an all time high. Clear web brand messaging will aid in keeping the attention of the potential non-traditional student.
2. Flexible Scheduling and Course Options
It is important to remember that most non-traditional students are working a full-time job and may have families. This need has not changed much over the years but may be more emphasized today due to the competing schedules of work, personal life and school. Hybrid courses that allow students to attend class in person when they can or online should they not be able to make the regularly scheduled class will also make a university stand out.
3. Personal Connection
Personal connections whether made in an online or face-to-face environment are important. Using alumni stories and personal testimonials of how other non-traditional students have balanced work, personal life and school demands will aid in the attractiveness of your university to non-traditional students. These real life examples and reviews can legitimize your university. Even though social media and smart phones can give us reviews and feedback about most anything in the world today, giving a human face to the review or experience cannot be matched.
4. Recognition of Life Experience
Recognize the life experience and work experience that non-traditional students possess. Non-traditional students have a lot to share in classrooms whether online or in person. They have had direct experiences to shape their frames of references. There can be valuable wisdom shared between traditional and non-traditional students. Being upfront about the value they can bring to the classroom can set your university apart.
Lastly, fundraising for scholarships specifically awarded to for non-traditional students, tells potential students the university cares about the success and future of non-traditional students. Even though we are coming out of the hard economic times that plagued much of the nation in the past few years, financial burdens still exist in many households. Long gone are the days when financial aid would cover the whole cost of a degree.
These five suggestions will help university leaders ensure that their institution stands out among the crowd to the rapidly growing population of non-traditional students.
Author Perspective: Administrator