Obsession of the year: Focus on adult learners
Nontraditional, older students
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 8.1 million students enrolled in higher education — or over 40% — in 2015 were 25 years old and over.
These students require flexibility in course schedules, more course offerings and more options for financial aid and billing.
The profile of the college campuses has changed dramatically over the last decade with an influx of students from more diverse socioeconomic, gender and ethnic backgrounds — so much so that the industry term “nontraditional” is now really just the new traditional. But in addition to these characteristics, the average age of the college students is also increasing, with more adult learners coming to campus, with data showing the adult learner populations will increase tremendously over the next nine years.
And as a result, college leaders are now rushing to figure out how to meet the needs of these students, who require much more flexibility in their schedules and opportunities to engage with the institutional culture that goes beyond living on campus. For this reason, Education Dive names working with adult learners as the obsession of the year.
Institutions like Western Governors University have taken steps to update their business models by focusing on outcomes and industry development needs, flexible curriculum, accelerated degree and alternative credentialing options, online classes and technological integration.
Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions
By attendance status, sex, and age, 1970 through 2024 (projected)Source: U.S. Department of Education
Mark David Milliron, the co-founder of Civitas Learning, an organization analyzing higher education outcomes, says that as many of these students have full-time jobs and familial obligations, campus leaders will have to consider methods of concentrating on the needs of part-timers just as much as full-timers — especially as around 62% of students at community colleges fall into the former category, according to Civitas’ data.
“What we’re trying to do is get people awake to the idea that if 70% of your students are part-time ... you should think about the pathways your part-time students are taking, and making sure those are clear and coherent as well,” he said. “So, it’s not an either/or conversation. It’s not 'better than,' it’s 'better with.'”
As nontraditional students continue to grow as a major part of incoming student bodies, institutions that don't adapt by providing more flexible credentialing options may find themselves falling behind other players in the industry.
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