Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
For many traditional observers of the postsecondary space, the notion that a degree is the ultimate credential—critical for anyone who wants a job—is a common idea. Non-credit credentials are typically waved off, criticized as not being rigorous enough or for being too focused on employability. At the New York University School of Professional Studies (NYU SPS), their team is looking to flip that script. With three specific tracks of diplomas aimed at students based on their academic experience, NYU SPS is moving away from the open certificate model to offer verified non-credit diplomas. Of course, simply creating a new set of offerings does not a success make. In this interview, Dennis Di Lorenzo reflects on how NYU SPS has had to transform its approach to the market to get students on board with this new non-credit model.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were some of your team’s major concerns, with regard to student demand, when you launched the diploma program?
Dennis Di Lorenzo (DDL): When we launched the diploma programs, which were both focused on job training for under- and unemployed people as well as skill-enhancement at the post-baccalaureate level, our team’s greatest concern was figuring out how to differentiate continuing education in a more directed way.
In the old approach, we threw a plethora of credentials, certificates and courses out into the marketplace and let the market self select. So, how did we shift to reach the specific market segments we are trying to serve? The diplomas are structured to be targeted toward specific groups. The Advanced Diplomas are targeted towards a post-baccalaureate cohort, the Professional Diplomas are designed for those with some college, and the Basic Diploma is for post-high school students.
We knew that we had the marketing experience to go after the post-baccalaureate population—and that proved true—but it was challenging to go after students with a high school diploma or some college experience, and convince them to see value in a non-credit credential that would create job opportunities for them.
We’re still doing a lot of learning when it comes to attracting this demographic. For one, they’re intimidated by the NYU brand. When they think of our institution, they think about a very costly traditional undergraduate education, so the idea that an institution like this is attempting to serve them in a different way is a hurdle. Second, really getting them to understand that we’re going to be invested in their career development was also a huge challenge.
We also had some concerns that, as we moved away from maximum flexibility to more prescriptive and cohort-driven credentials, we were going to lose the professional market—which is why we left the open enrollment courses in place. What we’re finding is that the professional market—in addition to the under- and unemployed market—wants to consume these credentials. People in this market want prescription, they want more rigor and they want more validation, but because our model was so prescriptive they wanted to see a little bit more flexibility of format.
As such, we’ve been adapting quite a bit. We knew when we introduced these credentials into the marketplace that we had to come out with a rigid structure because with too much flexibility we weren’t sure where the market was going to take us. Adapting our model has been a struggle, but it’s been a struggle that I think we’re overcoming on a daily basis. We’re having to adapt in real time to the market needs as we’re rolling out these new credentials and it can’t be something that takes 12 months—we’ve been adapting semester-to-semester as the market responds to these new credentials. However, our goal has to be to adapt while maintaining the basic foundations of what we’re trying to accomplish with the diploma, which is the prescription of content, job acquisition, cohort-driven and rigorous learning validation.
Evo: During our last discussion, you mentioned the reason you were moving to prescriptive diplomas at NYU SPS was because employers weren’t sure what students were learning in open certificates. How did students react to the shift away from maximum flexibility to prescription?
DDL: We found that, under the old model, there were students selling themselves as certificate holders even if they had only taken two or three courses. We did not have the data on who was pursuing the certificate in a real way, and we finally understood the industry perspective versus the job-seeker perspective.
Job seekers were creating false perceptions in the labor market because they were registering for a course or two and saying they were a certificate holder. This was allowed to happen because our standards were so loose.
Was there a little frustration when we took that ability away from student? Absolutely. That said, for the students coming to us for diplomas, they understand that the reason we made this shift is because we want to invest in their job search and we couldn’t do it under the old structure.
The reason students are buying in to this new credential is NYU is saying, “We’re giving you our stamp of approval at the end of the program and we’re actually going to assist you in your job search.” Before, we were allowing students to consume at their own risk.
Evo: How have you and your colleagues worked to help students better understand the value of these credentials?
DDL: It has been a grassroots outreach to get student buy-in. We’ve been working with job training-focused non-profits and workforce development-focused non-profits. We’ve been doing a lot of outreach sessions with this population where we’re working with them individually to explain the value proposition.
Glossy marketing, advertising—none of that has been effective. We really had to reach out. We met with guidance counselors across the city, we’re meeting with all of the agencies that are serving this population that have no help from universities to say, “We’re here, we want to help and we want to do something good with you.”
In many ways it’s the mission of creating opportunity with partners that has been our best marketing.
Evo: How much of a departure is this from the approach to outreach that NYU SPS has traditionally taken?
DDL: It is a huge departure from our traditional model and, from an organizational perspective, we’re getting a lot of external validation for the work that we’re doing.
However for those who have been in continuing education at NYU for a long time, this new approach is a struggle. Previously, we focused a lot on brand marketing and internal creativity— there was a lot more flash for cash and the students would come. That is not what this is and this really does require a whole different mindset. We’ve done a lot of work with our teams to get them to understand the value-added aspect of what we’re trying to accomplish, and to get them to understand that that the mindset of “revenue generation first” instead of “social purpose first” is not a good mindset in today’s economy.
Schools of continuing education were all about throwing everything out there and generating as much revenue as possible, but that model isn’t working much anymore in the non-credit space and we’re all suffering from it. I am lucky enough to be in a university that has allowed me to express professional studies through a graduate, undergraduate, and non-credit lens. We have multiple sources of revenue coming in, which allows me to experiment with and adapt the non-credit arm. If I was wholly dependent on that for our revenue, I probably wouldn’t have as much flexibility for change—even as my business was dying.
Evo: How have employers reacted to the shift to the diploma model?
DDL: Employers have reacted very positively to our shift to the diploma model. In fact, we capitalized on all of our employer relationships from across the University—from across our graduate and undergraduate programs—and we have almost 300 postings on our job board and not as many job seekers. Diploma holders are getting jobs on their own. We just had our first networking event with employers and graduates of our diploma programs and employers want more.
They understand what we’re trying to do, they understand that we’re willing to stand behind the students and the reason we’re getting such positive feedback from employers is we’re not just saying, “Hey come help us think of a program, but we’re not going to refer our students to you because we’re not sure of their skills.” This commitment to rigorous learning validation, this commitment to setting clear expectations for students is making a huge difference.
One of the other reasons industry is behind this credential is because we didn’t throw out a certificate and invite anyone to enroll, regardless of prior learning. That model created false expectations. If you’re a student with a high school diploma with no experience in a particular industry, allowing them to consume a certificate that really was for a post-baccalaureate audience created a false expectation. They were going out to the labor market representing themselves as qualified because we were setting false expectations. This model, with diplomas targeted specifically at audiences based on prior learning, ensures everyone has a reasonable understanding of their true skills.
Evo: What do you think the future holds for this “verified non-credit credential” approach, both at NYU and nationwide?
DDL: Everyone is talking about microcredentialing, but everyone is talking about it through the lens of acquiring credit for a larger degree. We see non-credit as a way of creating affordable microcredentials that aren’t about getting the degree.
Not all students and not all roads lead to a degree. Sometimes you just need training and you need to acquire skills in order to become a better professional. We’re trying to say that non-credit programming offers an affordable way of advancing your life, advancing your career, accomplishing whatever goals you might have. This isn’t about making a huge investment that forces students to mortgage their lives. What’s more, we’re setting a very clear expectation that this is one step on a path, not fifteen steps. I always like to say when you commit to a degree you’re really committing to a fifteen-step process in building a foundation for a career and a life. It’s much longer term, it’s a much higher investment. Sometimes you need to take small steps, and non-credit can help do that.
Non-credit helps people to advance without making that much larger of a commitment and mortgaging a life that they’re not quite sure they’ll be able to afford down the road.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Author Perspective: Administrator