Higher Education Must Innovate to Serve Nontraditional Learners

The National Center for Education Statistics defines a "nontraditional" learner as someone having one or more of the following seven characteristics: older than typical age, part-time attendance, being independent of parents, working full time while enrolled, having dependents, being a single parent, and being a recipient of a GED or high school completion certificate. As U.S. demographics have shifted in the last decade (and continue to change), 85 percent of students enrolled in post-secondary education can claim at least one of these traits, making them the vast majority of modern learners in the post-secondary category. 

While many factors contribute to the evolving student profile, a primary driver is the need to continually acquire new skills and knowledge in the digital economy. To do so, learners require much more flexible, accessible studies and diverse degree plans. Consider the professional who pursues continuing education to keep her competencies sharp in the ever-changing field of marketing automation. Or the single father taking online computer programming courses, so he can advance in his career and still be present for his child. 

Job requirements are transforming at an ever-increasing rate, and the workforce is looking for ways to keep pace. With the continuing need for knowledge-building, and the likelihood of several job and career transitions over a worker's lifetimes, colleges and universities have the opportunity to meet a critical need and demonstrate how their offerings give students a competitive edge.

Higher education institutions are taking notice. Some are creating "Professional Schools" to provide degrees to serve certain professions. Within those professional colleges/schools, more and new programs are being developed to meet the changing demands of new careers and to increase job placement after graduation. 

Likewise, there are now more than 600 U.S. colleges and universities offering online degrees. An excellent example, Southern New Hampshire University is a model case study for the sort of paradigm shift essential for higher education institutions to remain relevant. The university identified an opportunity to grow its enrollment (thus revenue) without having to invest in the addition of physical space or compromise its commitment to reasonable tuition rates by building out its online education offerings. Enrollment has soared, and in 2017 SNHU was named U.S. News and World Report's most innovative university in its region.

But this type of significant change doesn't occur on its own. It is imperative that institution leaders embrace innovation and support an innovative culture within their organizations. Moreover, they must be able to objectively assess their environment and the market to determine how they can uniquely meet student needs. In what ways does the institution need to change? Do certain programs need more lift? With these types of questions in mind, leadership should collaborate with internal teams to ascertain how operations and processes must be adjusted to support structural changes. Perhaps there is a need to adopt more technology, increase efficiencies, or make advising offices available online.

The lens of progress should also be applied to faculty hiring. Faculty have to be current, technologically savvy, and aware of the changing needs of students. The teaching/learning model looks different at a distance or when the student is 35 years old. Faculty must understand how to reach students of all types through many channels and consistently identify ways to improve student outcomes.

Simply marketing existing programs and structures to modern students may not generate the revenue institutions expect. To become attractive to the learners of tomorrow, institutions may need to rethink or reinvent their entire delivery model. This implies radical mission change, revised policies and procedures, reorganization, and financial reallocation. Success will be dependent on institutions' ability to respond to - or better yet, anticipate and get in front of - change.