At Thomas Edison State University President Merodie Hancock oversees an institution focused on non-traditional students. In an interview with Evollution, an online publication about higher education, Hancock explained her philosophy on serving non-traditional students. Editor Amrit Ahluwalia asked the questions.
Why are non-traditional students more focused on ROI than their traditional-age counterparts?
They’re both interested in ROI, but the non-traditional student has the more specific focus on ROI; they need to see immediate impact. For traditional-aged students, it’s a more qualitative ROI. The non-traditional student is really looking to have that return on investment available right after they walk out of class.
This has a lot of impact on relevance. This is one of the things I struggle with quite a bit. If they are interested in an immediate ROI, which is almost always employment-defined, do they then miss out on studying the theory and understanding how the theory might impact or inform their practice? We might lose the theory if we’re only focusing on the on-the-job ROI.
Should institutions looking to better serve non-traditional students focus on offering more non-credit or short course/certificate programming?
Institutions should offer non-credit programming, short courses, and certificate programming to serve the non-traditional audience. We need to be very careful that we don’t disadvantage the non-traditional student, which is now our majority population. Our traditional students have a plethora of options and schools with different cultures, systems, and resources, and focus on different areas. Some have a far larger student life component or a far larger research component. You want to build that same array for non-traditional students. We should have opportunities that they can grab onto immediately, not only to update their skills but that can also be reflected on a CV.
Outcomes obviously play a major role, but for the customer-minded non-traditional student, how important are elements of the student experience like ease of registration and payment, or availability of academic support?
Time is a huge resource for these students and where do you want them to spend their time — do you want them to spend it in the learning process or in the registration process? They are going to do the best for their investment and they’re going to spend it in the learning process.
If we break that down to the other part around student services, this is where colleges, many of them, need to stop trying to be everything to everybody and focus on different areas and do them well. We’re all trying to focus on veterans, for example, and we’re all doing a really good job, but some schools are really investing heavily in that and all probably can’t afford to invest in the same level.
Ultimately, non-traditional students aren’t willing to go through the same runaround that a traditional student will. The non-traditional student isn’t going to sit and wait in line all day, and they now have other options available where they don’t have to. A lot of schools have really perfected those processes.
What are a few of the roadblocks that stand in the way of these kinds of changes?
We’re all trying to be all things to all people and that’s hard. We’re all trying to chase the numbers. There’s a real economics game going on that didn’t exist in traditional education. The cost of recruitment — specifically in the marketing aspect and lead generation aspect — has had a huge impact on resources. As we all compete across state borders and for the same populations, it’s an arms war in the marketing race.
The other piece for the traditional schools is that there’s a redirection of resources. As you start to transfer in more students, as more students come in with prior learning credits or other transfer credits — especially at the 100 and 200 levels— you have students not taking those courses at your institution, which affects the upper year courses that are funded by this revenue.
A lot of schools thought non-traditional students would be a cash cow to fund other resources and programs, but if you do it right it’s not that. We can’t just be looking at cranking out the students and increasing our marketing budgets to get more students. We need to be thinking about what marketing resources we give these students, what programs we have, where we specialize; and then keep that going.
What are steps that leaders can take that can make those types of changes easier to digest for stakeholders across the institution?
If you’re an existing college you need to know your college; understand your specific strengths as well as your goal. Then you need to start thinking about how to include these features for non-traditional students. How do you start making the institution more flexible? Are you forcing all your non-traditional students into a one-size-fits-all education?
A huge base of non-traditional learners out there are starting to say, “We want options. We don’t want to wait to register, we don’t want to have to attend during the day, we want to choose between online and face-to-face and other modalities and we want an opportunity to study with some of these better known researchers and names.”
Not everyone’s going to say that but we’re hearing a louder voice that says, “I’m a non-traditional student and I want choices.”
How can higher education institutions change to address the needs and expectations of the growing non-traditional population of students?
If you’re a traditional school, probably the best way is to start with a group of motivated faculty. Find strong voices within your faculty core that want to re-imagine how they do business, how they deliver courses.
A huge difference in the larger non-traditional schools is that many don’t have a traditional faculty base. If we want the traditional schools to move forward, it’s easier to move forward with a large at-will base faculty than it is to move forward with a tenured group of faculty who have a strong investment in the curriculum. Then you want to take the experts who know that curriculum and have them help build it up.
What are some of those fundamental changes that a leader would have to push on the administrative side of the institution to ensure they’re meeting the customer expectations of non-traditional students?
Part of it is investment. It’s important to recognize that this is not the cash cow that a lot of presidents, CFOs, and CAOs hoped it would be. There’s a very large investment around the technology, the data, and the systems needed to get information to students and administrators as they need it.
It’s also investing in support staff. Often, non-traditional students are first-generation students. There’s a lot more work needed to support them on the financial side, such as advising around financial aid, student accounts, pieces like that. These students often have a pay-as-you-go mentality and institutions really have to help them work through this investment: making sure they can pay for courses, identify resources, ensuring they’re not eliminating their financial aid to pay for things like housing without furthering their degree.
On the administrative side, it’s not as cheap as some would hope to maximize value for non-traditional students, especially if you want them to be successful.
Is there anything you’d like to add about how to go about meeting the advanced expectations of non-traditional students?
Ironically, it’s still people-dependent. This is a scared population in many ways. Higher education is new to them and they’re not going to just trust you. They have to see the return on investment immediately. You need to get a dedicated and nimble group of faculty and administrators who are going to start building the processes, and then you spread it across the college.