Carol Aslanian is a market researcher who helps colleges build strategies and new programming to increase enrollment by focusing on post-traditional students, those students who used to be called “adult students.”
Carol began her career in higher education research in the 1980s at the College Board. Her first project in the post-traditional student world was called Youth and Direction for a Learning Society that got hard data to help colleges grow the population of older students coming back to school at two-year and four-year colleges by talking to employers about their needs.
The Current Higher Ed Marketplace
The demographics of the “typical” college student has changed in the last 30-40 years. According to the College Board, 70 percent of all undergraduate students are made up of what now is called post-traditional students – students who do not study full-time during the day and are not in-residence. The remaining 30 percent are traditional students, those who study full time and are in-residence.
Of this 70 percent, 19-20 percent of students study full-time online, and the other 50 percent are individuals who do blended programs, i.e., some classes on campus.
The reason we are seeing a surge in post-traditional students, besides the demographics of the high school population being stagnant or decreasing in many areas throughout the United States, is that we now have a large number of students who began their degree but didn't finish. These students had less than two years of credit and dropped out, disenchanted with the college experience and/or the direction that they were going, and went into the workforce. They are now coming back to college 5-10 years later, knowing the career that they want and are focusing on that.
There are three primary reasons why post-traditionals come back to school. First, they need a job; second, they want more money; and third, they want a promotion; all of which need a college degree.
This is a marked change from 20 years ago, where the majority of students headed off to college and finished in four years. Now, those that go to college and finish in four-years make up less than 25% of the market.
The Evolution of The Current College and Distance / Online Education
In the 1980s and 1990s, many colleges and universities had special units called continuing ed, extension, adult and professional development, etc. These units specialized in educating working adults – the 25-year old population which worked full time during the week – by offering evening or weekend courses to enable them to start and/or complete their degrees. Although adult students were not the primary focus of universities, so long as these units brought in revenue, the institution was pleased as the revenue supported other areas.
Online education got its major start in the 1980s driven in large part by the University of Phoenix in 1989 and the advent of Blackboard in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2010, higher ed adopted the concept that age no longer predicted the way people learn, which began tearing down the segregation of adult / post-traditional students from the traditional student.
Online education has grown astronomically over the past 20 years, to where 1 out of 5 undergraduates in this country study fully online. The most recent statistics from Eduventures say that in 2016, 16-17 percent of all undergraduate students are fully online, and that percentage increased to 19-20 percent in 2017. This is despite the for-profit sector losing market share over the past few years, primarily because:
One example of this is Central Michigan University. Central Michigan used to have “campuses” on the military bases as a convenience for their adult military students, but they now have a huge online presence which makes sense for the military adult student because of deployments.
What Post-Traditional Students Want
Post-traditional students’ thoughts around education differ from those of traditional 18-24-year-old students. They want programs that are
According to the Babson Research Group, 54 percent of all students take blended programs. This makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of research from Aslanian Market Research. These students typically say, “I'll get in there once a week, but please don't make me come in three times a week.”
Building Programs for the Post-Traditional Market
Market research is critical for understanding the potential for going after post-traditional students, as well as why current programs are not attracting the numbers that universities want or need.
Market research must answer five key questions:
Aslanian Market Research does its market analysis of the student population within a 100-150 mile radius of the institution, and talks with both prospective and current post-traditional students. They feel it is critical that you work on the basis of demand – those who have done it instead of those who want to do it. You must also study the competition, what previous research conducted by extension sites / divisions of continuing education says, and talk to the faculty and administration about their viewpoint. All these things are required to come up with a set of recommendations of how a college can attract the post-traditional population to the campus.
The majority of institutions do not understand marketing sufficiently. Consequently, they don’t spend what it takes to enroll this population. For example, most institutions give the traditional student incredible discounts on tuition – in some cases up to 50 percent – but are not giving the post-traditional student the same levels of discounts. Additionally, they are not investing in marketing to this demographic. Why not divert some of the money to the population that makes up 70-75 percent of the pool of eligible students?
Transitioning the Institution and Resistance to Change
Transitioning an institution for recruiting and educating post-traditional students requires change management, and change is not easy for most universities. A recent example of this had a university president on board with the proposed changes, but the provost was concerned because s/he knew that s/he must deal with academics to get them to change – which isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
The key to making this argument is having the data that supports the changes and answers the questions as to what the market is demanding, but equally important is having leadership that builds trust and a transparent process that includes collaboration. “People support what they help create."
Change depends mostly on the trust that employees have in their leadership.
There are four types of people you must deal with in change: early adapters who love change, the “wait-and-see” crowd, cynics who will never change (and will not give you a reason why), and skeptics. In the change process, skeptics are your best friend because they will tell you when something is not going to work and give you reasons why.
There are many pros and cons for faculty when it comes to online teaching. One professor from Florida Atlantic University stated that he liked online because there was more of an opportunity to have one-on-one time with students vs. being in a huge lecture room, but that teaching online was more time-consuming – students will reach out at 11 PM with a question about an assignment.
Competition for the Post-Traditional Student
The competition also can play a role in driving distance education. For example, other than Penn, none of the Ivy League schools are implementing distance education, but when Harvard and others begin looking at what Penn is doing, they may move in this direction. One way in which they may do this is by implementing distance certificate programs. In some ways, their certificate programs already cater to an international audience, and this is one way that they could move toward implementing distance education.
New Trends in Higher Education
One of the hot trends in the education marketplace is badges. Currently, the degree market makes up about 60 percent of students, the certificate market between 18-20 percent, and the remaining 20 percent take individual courses.
Although there has been talk about badges and competency-based programs for a long time, according to current market research, there is not a lot of call for badges and competency-based programs yet. The hype around badges is similar to what we saw a few years back around MOOCs.
Competency-based education may be different. For CBE to become more mainstream, it will require a change of perspective from the Department of Education. To wit, Western Governors is fighting massive fines from the Ed Dept because someone there said what they are doing was tantamount to a correspondence course vs. an actual academic institution. That has huge implications for CBE, and the jury is out on this one.
What the future will hold is not clear, but for now, badges and CBE are farther and fewer between and do not surface to any degree noticeable in current research.
Three Keys for University Presidents
Three key things university presidents must consider when establishing programs, growing, etc. over the next five years when it comes to the post-traditional population:
Aslanian Market Research has three new research reports that can be downloaded from their website dealing with the post-traditional undergraduate, graduate, and online markets. Their website is www.educationdynamics.com.
The Crystal Ball
Here’s what we expect over the next 5 to 10 years.
Links to Articles, Apps, or websites mentioned during the interview:
Case Studies: https://www.educationdynamics.com/case-studies
Market Research: https://www.educationdynamics.com/e-books
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Education Dynamics website: https://www.educationdynamics.com/
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