Smart Business: Serving the Nontraditional Student

College and universities should carefully consider their business plans to achieve successful results for today's nontraditional student population.

Seventy-three percent of college students now are considered “nontraditional,” meaning that they may work while attending school, study part-time or online, or support a family. The good news is that administrators — after years of not paying enough attention to this group   finally recognize them. The bad news is that some schools are rushing into programs to serve nontraditional students without developing clear business plans.

The non-traditional student population has grown more in the last 10 years than the traditional student population, and these trends are expected to continue. Going forward, enrollments of students under 25 are only projected to increase by 11 percent between 2010 and 2020, whereas enrollments of students over 25 are expected to increase by 20 percent over the same period.

Although this shift in demographic has been in the works for some time, presidents and other key institutional administrators are now beginning to acknowledge it. They are looking for ways to overhaul the institutional structure and culture that has permeated for decades (and in some cases, centuries). Recognizing the proliferation of nontraditional students, institutions are making a real effort to cater to their needs and to meet their demands for just-in-time learning, delivery and scheduling flexibility and outcome-based programs. However, in some ways the pendulum may have swung too far from one side to the other.

Leveraging MOOCs and Other Options

One example of this problem can be seen when looking at the quick deployment of new massive online open course, or MOOC, programs. In an effort to quickly meet student demand for affordable and flexible online courses, schools have been rapidly turning out MOOCs. Yet the pace at which these programs have been deployed has precluded careful consideration and well-thought-out business plans.

While free for students, MOOCs can be used as an effective lead generation tool, allowing institutions to collect student information and preferences in order to create or maintain a relationship and later upsell the student-paid courses. Currently, if a student registers for a MOOC through a specific institution, most of the time the registration takes place directly through the MOOC provider, and the institution holds no record of the registration and has no touch-point with the student. While administratively easy to operate, this process eliminates any opportunities for the college or university to communicate with or market courses to specific students. Failing to create this relationship — or worse yet, failing to nurture it — means that institutions essentially give lead generation to an outside company that may or may not be a competitor.

Many institutions are looking to compete with the plethora of free and low-cost education options that have recently sprung up by offering their own equally inexpensive courses. However, it is important to remember that success in these avenues is the direct result of a streamlined back-end that is complete with automation, visibility and control and that leads to an excellent student engagement experience. The same can be said about nearly any new venture. If the plans, processes and procedures are not fully in place, it will be very difficult to succeed in the long term.

Planning for the Long Term

While the current economic climate is putting pressure on institutions to act now, market-leading schools understand that real gains need to be carefully planned out. While it may take longer to implement, by fully thinking through a strategy, institutions stand to steadily increase revenue year after year.

For a moment, think back to the low-cost airline feud that ensued in the early 1990s between Southwest, United and Continental. Without getting into details, the crux of the story is that Southwest was able to surmount the competition by creating a more efficient model that allowed them to drop prices without reducing their profits. The other airlines tried to compete on price, but quickly shut down without the back-end infrastructure.

While a completely different vertical, this case study provides some notable lessons for higher ed. Southwest took years to determine exactly how to best corner the market — they didn’t rush to take advantage of the very first opportunity, but rather ensured that they were taking advantage of the biggest opportunity in the best and most organized way.

The opportunity to garner business from nontraditional students is still developing and growing. The number of high school graduates began to decline in 2008. While there are nine million adults over the age of 25 now enrolled in American colleges and universities, the “latent market” is much larger. The American Council on Education estimates its size at 80 million. In order to capitalize on this market, institutions must understand what adult students need, and how they can create a stable infrastructure to surround it.

Nontraditionals are Student Consumers

Institutions are beginning to recognize that adult students behave more like consumers than students and seek out programs that fit around their busy schedules,  not the other way around. Adult students want knowledge for employability and care much less about having knowledge for knowledge sake. Adult students want outcomes, not necessarily degrees. After all, they are back in school training for improved employability or advancement. The goal is often not a degree, but a job, or a better-paying job.

The next step will require institutions to look at how they operate, consider their goals and take the time to plan out exactly how they can cater to this market. The higher-ed landscape today is competitive, but with well-thought-out and carefully supported strategies, market-leading institutions stand to capitalize on one of the biggest opportunities higher ed has ever seen.

Shaul Kuper is president and CEO of Destiny Solutions, a company that provides business software solutions for nontraditional divisions of leading higher education institutions, including Penn State World Campus, Stanford Center for Professional Development and eCornell.