With more options for older students in how, where and even when to attain the credentials they need, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for many adult-serving institutions and programs to maintain their enrollments. But there are other factors impacting adult-learner enrollments too. For instance, high unemployment rates have historically resulted in college enrollment booms, but unemployment rates have been falling as the economy continues to slowly improve.
Members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board recently discussed these trends, plus how institutions and programs geared toward adult learners can remain competitive. Their insights could prove valuable if you’re seeing your adult-student population shrink.
Q: What external forces do you feel are impacting your adult-student enrollments most?
Karen Heikel: We see the number of adults enrolling in college decreasing, partly because of the improvement in unemployment rates. When employment opportunities are good, people will focus on working. And in our area, a number of competitors have entered the adult-learner market. It’s not even just the for-profits anymore, but also other state schools, some of which are just 45 miles down the road. The combination of those things has really made things more difficult for us.
John F. Azzaretto: One thing I see happening is that more people are going after industry-specific certifications and not necessarily degree programs. Those certifications may be a requirement in some cases, and in others just a good ticket to get punched. Because they’re less expensive and take less time than a college degree, it can be hard to compete with that.
Louis deSalle: We’re not seeing the population of potential students decreasing so much as it is dispersing because there are so many competitors and so many options for adult learners today. Twenty years ago, we were the only show or one of several shows in town. Today, because students have so many choices, many of those who might have come to us in the past are now choosing other places.
The media presentation of higher education has also led to an increase in the number of regulations and oversight, making it more difficult for us to innovate. For example, if we want to change or add programs, there are now more hurdles than ever to jump.
Barbara Randazzo: The media has been hard on us these last couple of years. The impact and value of college degrees are constantly being questioned. And then there are all the new, competency-based programs cropping up at institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and Northern Arizona University. I don’t know if that’s impacting enrollments here yet, but I wonder about it because of the amount of visibility they get.
Alan Mandell: This seems like this is a “best of times, worst of times” moment for us. A speaker at the last Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conference mentioned that something like two-thirds of all college students in the U.S. could be defined as adults. That’s a sign of our spectacular success as a social movement. But retention rates for adults are still rather poor. So we have to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to get better? What are the services and supports that students need to succeed in our institutions?” And, of course, at the same time, this is a hard thing to consider when so many budgets are being cut. We seem to need more with less.
Q: What strategies, if any, do you feel can help you push back against these forces resulting in fewer adult learners?
Randazzo: We’ve managed our tuition for many years to remain competitive, but we must be careful not to go too far. While we don’t want to charge too much, we also don’t want to send the message that our programs are worth little, because we don’t believe that.
We’re now considering affinity pricing for strategic partners, such as local chambers of commerce and community colleges. We’re also looking at ways to get enhanced access to prospective students, such as through employers, where they get something in exchange for providing us that direct connection to individuals who could benefit from our programs.
deSalle: The marketing piece is very difficult because there’s such market saturation out there. We’ve always relied on word-of-mouth. It’s been our primary way of attracting students, because current students bring in their spouses, children and even parents. We’ve found that to make sure we can rely on word-of-mouth marketing, students’ experiences here must be good ones.
Mandell: I have what is perhaps a naïve and romantic view of this. We will get smooshed over time if what we provide is not of good quality. Students recognize whether they are being well-served, and if their personal, academic and professional needs are being responded to in the learning opportunities we develop and offer. And whether relying on word-of-mouth or some other way of marketing, I think quality typically wins out.
I also find it fascinating that talk around the notion of personalized education, and that word — “personalized” — has begun to emerge not just here at my college but all over. Just as they did in the 1970s, institutions are again realizing that students are looking for flexible arrangements that respond to their learning needs. But the less we know about our students — and I think this happens with increasing numbers, with new efficiencies and additional regulations — the harder it is for us to figure out what those needs may be.
We must find out what our students know, what they care about, what questions they have, what their goals are, and what kinds of things would challenge them. Then we need to ask, “To what extent do our programs offer students real possibilities to ask their own questions and be guided by faculty and other professionals who take their interests and their worries seriously?”