Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Just because a student has earned their certificate or degree doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to come back to school—especially in today’s environment. It’s up to institutions to not only provide the right education to get learners back into the workforce but to also help them with day-to-day responsibilities, like finance and personal growth. In this interview, Melissa Marcello and Jen Morris discuss providing adult learners with support services and affordable offerings and fostering a lifelong learning culture.
Melissa Marcello (MM): The survey revealed that 66% of Americans feel positively about their futures, even amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the 2020 election season. At the same time, this positivity is translating into action, with two out of three respondents taking steps to improve their career prospects.
At Champlain College Online, we’ve been thinking about how we can help our adult students skill up faster and more affordably. We had already been building out our career-focused certificate offerings pre pandemic, but our internal focus from a marketing standpoint had always been on our signature degree programs. We decided to double-down on certificates while demonstrating how they provide a pathway into a degree program, should that be something a student wants to pursue at a future date. And we’ve seen significant growth as a result.
We’ve always thought about the “whole student” in the ways that many traditional institutions think about supporting students’ needs beyond academia. But we’ve historically provided this support in less formal ways. In March, we launched “Wellbeing Wednesdays” to offer regular, synchronous webinars on a variety of topics that range from financial literacy to personal branding and creativity, free of charge for our students. We know that our adult students are balancing so much, but we also know they need to take care of themselves first in order to achieve their career and personal goals.
In talking with our peer institutions, this seems like an area of development and opportunity to build a more holistic approach to educating adult students beyond core academic offerings.
MM: From the moment a student inquires about a certificate or degree program, the conversation revolves around their career goals and helping them assess whether the program they are interested in meets them. We also know that adult students frequently come back to school with some baggage, including questions about whether they’re worthy and have what it takes to be successful. For some, it might be because the first time around they were not successful. For others, they may have been passed up for a promotion, and a graduate degree might give them an edge when the next opportunity comes their way.
For this reason, we believe it is important to support adult students from an appreciative advising standpoint. That is, helping students look to past successes–academic or not–and uncover their strengths. In understanding their strengths, they can double-down on those strengths to overcome future challenges and reach their career aspirations.
While we’ve offered some form of career support to our adult students, it’s frequently been comprised of the basics: resume review, job fair promotion, access to Handshake, and the like. While we still offer those services, rather than look inside of higher ed for a more robust solution to round out our career offerings, we decided that we would look out in the world, and specifically on LinkedIn, to see who the influencers were and highly regarded in this space. That’s how we found Jen Morris of Career Inspo, a job search strategist, LinkedIn trainer, career counselor and developer of a number of proven programs that help people focus on their job search and find jobs they love.
Jen worked with our e-learning team to turn her proven Fast Start Formula Program into an on-demand, self-paced course for our students. What’s more, Jen facilitates live group sessions in which our students can get direct career coaching in a group setting twice a month. Conducting a job search, creating a personal brand, and tapping into the “hidden job market” are skills that adult students need to acquire in order to put their education to work in a career they love.
Jen Morris (JM): This is a time of instability for many people, so it’s important to listen and meet adult student needs. For those looking to change careers, it’s a great time for adult learners to take advantage of student support services and the resources available within your school. Continued education or certificates could be a powerful way to pivot your career. With my work at Champlain College Online, I aim to provide students with the knowledge and skills to find a job they love with a self-paced course that they can complete on their own timeline.
MM: Much of our focus to date has been on workforce development: working with employers to create a talent pipeline from within. For example, in the tech stack, taking your IT generalist or even help desk support knowledge and upskilling it into cybersecurity. We’ve done this both informally and formally through career pathways, working closely with the employer to identify the needed competencies and arrive at solutions that will meet them. For a major telecom company, we developed a badge program built on our relevant courses that did just that.
Simplifying the learn-work pathways is really the holy grail of our work and something that community colleges and some four-year public institutions have done really well historically. Regionally, I’ve been following a bit of what Northeastern is planning at The Roux Institute, and some of it is along these lines: using the experiential co-op program, along with relevant academic coursework, to create a talent pipeline into STEM jobs in Maine. Such programming can be more challenging for the adult learners we serve, given that so many of them are working, but with more remote possibilities for internships I think many more opportunities could open up.
We’ve recently re-engineered our general education program to better align it not only with Champlain College competencies, but also competencies that employers are seeking in the modern workforce–competencies sought by our corporate and public sector partners. I think this is an area of opportunity for us as we build out our plan for the next academic year.
JM: A blended pathway between employers and higher education benefits both organizations and students. If higher education understands employers’ needs, they will have an opportunity to provide students with more learning and training specific to those needs.
MM: Free training can create a great buffer, but there are many cases in which more comprehensive degree programs and certificates are desired. Champlain College Online offers options that fall in between, like our Champlain Stackables model, which allows organizations to select learning modules needed to close employee skills gaps, such as skills for new supervisors, and growth-focused managers, at an affordable not-for-credit price point but also through a credit-eligible pathway. This allows employees who are motivated to pursue a degree or certificate to use these modules to work toward those goals.
We also partner with alternative credential providers, like Study.com, that offer very affordable ways for students to learn and quickly demonstrate their competencies. For some of our students, starting at Study.com makes a lot of sense due to their low price point and their demonstrated pathways into one of our degree programs.
Sometimes, however, we can’t offer a program that competes toe-to-toe with some of the freemium content out there, which is often designed to wet someone’s appetite and allow a student to explore an area of interest or develop personally. I know my husband and I both started a course on happiness in April, which we enjoyed (and needed at the time!) but never finished. If we had to pay for it, I am not sure we would have ever logged in.
Lastly, I mentioned earlier that this past September, Champlain College Online also announced our partnership with Jen to provide students with access to her course, the Fast Start Formula Career Course.
JM: The course I’ve developed with Champlain College Online is free for students pursuing a degree at the institution and is also offered to those in certificate courses. It’s a way for students to have access to a proven, cohesive strategy to guide their career search from start to finish without having to question the legitimacy of the company or individual providing the course.
JM: The survey revealed that top actions adults have taken to improve their career prospects included updating their resumes (38%), reaching out for career help (37%), developing new skills through free training (36%), and exploring a career change (35%). These numbers show that, often, alongside looking for continued education, adults are looking for areas of improvement and development that are not necessarily considered part of their degrees. Colleges and universities can inform their adult learners of current resources to help them in these areas or to develop more resources to do so, including partnering with outside experts.
MM: Universities and colleges better support their students when they recognize that learning doesn’t end with the completion of a degree and that ongoing learning outside of a degree program is important. A career-focused approach to education positions students to become lifelong learners, recognizing that the degree they’re earning is one piece of the puzzle needed to result in a happy and successful career.
There are also opportunities for universities and colleges to work alongside employers to ensure that lifelong learning continues in the workplace. We believe that the success of an organization is enhanced when its employees have access to relevant knowledge and skills. That’s why we launched our truED Alliance program which offers employees access to our certificate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for a significant discount compared to our standard tuition rates.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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Author Perspective: Administrator