The new class: Non-traditional students are changing the market for higher education

iStock_000020345837SmallIn light of our focus on globalization, Academic Partnerships teamed up with The Economist Intelligence Unit to publish case studies on the subject of the globalization of higher education. Below is one of the case studies.

The demographic profile of students at US colleges and universities has changed dramatically in recent decades. Once a minority, today “non-traditional” students far outnumber the 18-to-22-year-olds who have historically entered college directly from high school.

Today’s college students tend to be older and come from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and often have work and family obligations. Some 36% of undergraduates in 2008 were 25 years old or older, and 46% were enrolled parttime; 43% held part-time positions. According to statistics from the US Department of Education, the enrolment rates of older students are expected to grow faster than those of traditional students over the next ten years.

According to Pathways to Success, a 2012 report prepared for the US Congress by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, non-traditional students have been inadequately served by colleges and universities, despite their growing numbers. Schools may schedule classes at times inconvenient for non-traditional students or offer insufficient financial aid. Researchers, meanwhile, typically overlook these students in studies, and a lack of understanding around their different circumstances allows them to remain underserved.

Different students, different needs

Perhaps because of these challenges, more Americans have been attending college online, according to a 2013 report, Online College Students 2013: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. About 32% of the country’s 21m college students were taking at least one online course in 2011, and nearly 3m were enrolled in fully online programmes, according to the report. While the growth rate of online enrolment has slowed from its peak in the mid-2000s, it remains three to four times that of classroom enrolment, which declined in 2012 after years of steady growth.

For many students, classroom-based programmes may be unsustainable because of work, family, financial or personal obligations, the study says. “Life got too busy,” one online student was quoted as saying. “I got married, had a career and two kids. I needed something more flexible without taking away from my time with my family.”

Addressing the needs of non-traditional students could help boost college completion rates, which have been stubbornly low in the US, once a world leader in degrees conferred. That will require “modifications in the structure and delivery of higher education,” the report says, citing a panel of experts.

A changing marketplace

“Higher education has focused on a segment of the learners that is not the typical learner as we see it today,” notes Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University. He says that non-traditional students account for up to 85% of postsecondary students: “They want curricula that are adapted to their needs.”

Non-traditional students look for solid outcomes such as skills and job eligibility rather than more traditional metrics of a given school’s brand or selectivity, he says. By failing to focus on jobs, higher education has created a kind of dichotomy between education and preparation for the workplace, he says. Appealing to non-traditional students also has financial implications. Colleges and universities that target only traditional students risk leaving the majority of the market to competitors, says Mr Aoun. Curricula eventually will be tailored to students’ needs and price points will vary.

“Online learning is becoming ubiquitous,” he says. “Everybody will have some form of online classes, and therefore you will not be able to say, ‘I have an advantage because I have courses online.’ Content is going to be king.”

Richard Garrett, vice-president and principal analyst at Eduventures Inc, a research and consulting firm, says a concerted effort to target adult learners, particularly by for-profit schools, has led to a 50% increase in adult undergraduate and graduate students over the past 20 years. With the boom in adult learning and online education over the past 20 years, the average student’s age is poised to rise over the next decade. The trend is hardly new. Continuing education and correspondence courses began more than 100 years ago to protect the academic core but allow the general public at least some level of access. Over time they have become part of the mainstream and now constitute the majority, Mr Garrett says. Today, however, the markets are actually maturing and becoming more crowded. Growth is harder to come by and the value proposition is increasingly commoditised.

“The identity of higher education is still so much about that traditional core, which is now the exception. Given the size of this trend, schools have to decide, ‘Do we want to be everything to everyone, or are we going to specialise in a particular student type and invest more in certain types of programmes?’”

“The real problem is not ‘how do we expand faster, how do we include more students’,” he says, noting the low completion rate that plagues many online programmes. “The real question is ‘how do we serve more effectively the already very diverse student body we already have? How do we optimise the already wide range of delivery modes that are currently on offer?’”

Experimental approaches have emerged, and competency-based learning — less expensive and focused on student knowledge — has seen a revival with wholly online institutions such as University Now, New Charter University and College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, he says. “We don’t know if they’re going to fly or flop, but that’s certainly been one theme, to get away from credit hours and traditional faculty-intensive models, to customise, individualise and make learning as relevant and tangible as possible.”

What seems most likely to come out on top will be more strategic hybrids between the two approaches that appeal to different groups of students — those who want more of a campus-based curriculum and those looking for a stronger online component, such as adult learners with full-time jobs. In Pennsylvania, public universities are preparing for more adult students and plan to expand prior learning assessments that give students the opportunity to earn credits for learning outside the classroom.

“We’re going to open [the state system] up to any kind of prior learning that people are bringing,” says John Cavanaugh, the state system’s chancellor, in conversation with Inside Higher Ed. State officials expect that students will seek and obtain credits from prior learning experiences ranging from military service to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. “You’re still going to have to demonstrate that you’ve got the learning before that translates to credit,” Mr Cavanaugh notes.


Whatever approach is taken, higher education will remain a reliable path to economic reward. Job growth in the US in recent decades has benefited workers with at least some college or post-secondary education, and college graduates earn far more in their lifetimes than those with only high school diplomas.

“The demand for higher education has broadened,” says Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. People who were once able to find “legitimate, satisfying and well-enough paying work” without more sophisticated knowledge and higher-level skills are no longer able to do so.

As a result, the participation rate in higher education has grown dramatically and consistently over the past 25 years, says Mr Lingenfelter. “The real challenge for higher education will be to create successful pathways [for completion] as early as possible in life, because the opportunity cost is high.

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