Sean Gallagher, Higher Education Management Group member, directs Eduventures’ Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) Learning Collaborative, a consortium of more than 100 colleges and universities. He is widely viewed as a leading expert on the higher education market, and he is a frequent speaker at numerous higher education conferences each year. Sean’s research and analysis have often been cited in leading media outlets such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Television. Prior to joining Eduventures in 2000, he worked in technology consulting and public relations. He holds an M.B.A. from the New York Institute of Technology and a B.S. in marketing from Northeastern University.
KCH: There has been a great deal of discussion about the need for adults to continue to acquire more credentials due to the changing demands of the labour market. My understanding, though, is that the more educated the individual, the more likely they will seek out further education. Do we have evidence that the people that truly need to continue their education are enrolling?
Although it’s too early to quantify exactly how enrollments are shaking out across the broad market, there is some evidence that all types of “continuing education” are experiencing increasing demand. Certainly there is ample evidence that graduate enrollments are up in many market segments – more admissions test-takers, more applications, more enrollments. But what about the people who have only a high school diploma or some college credits, who need to complete a bachelor’s or associate degree? Indeed, their career prospects might benefit from additional education most. The unemployment rate in the U.S. has been increasing most rapidly for those who are high school graduates with no college education – it was 9.0% in April, compared to 7.2% for people with some college or an associate degree, and only 4.3% for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In February, we completed a national survey (U.S.) of 1,500 prospective adult students – people who are planning to enroll in higher education within the next 3 years. Fully 62% of this representative sample that reflects the characteristics of pending demand for higher education is comprised of individuals who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree. The largest single portion of the sample (41%) was “some college” – but no degree. On average, these people have already completed 42 college credits, and many are looking to translate those credits into a degree as quickly as possible over the next few years. Degree completion students are among the most likely to say that the economy has led them to value higher education more. However, nearly half (43%) say that the economy is forcing them to slow down their enrollment plans – they may be taking fewer courses at a time or taking longer to make an enrollment decision. So, it is more important than ever for colleges to ensure that their offerings are both accessible and affordable.
KCH: Has the current economic climate changed the way that university leaders are thinking about the adult student market?
Yes. Encouragingly, we have seen many colleges – from large, selective research universities, to state colleges, small private institutions, and others look specifically to the adult student market as an important enabler of growth and/or stability in the current economic climate. At many institutions, there is a new or renewed recognition that continuing and professional education programs and adult education can be a critical revenue source and financial contributor to other areas within the university. Interestingly, this “renaissance” is often coming from presidents of the institutions or the state government. Since many continuing and professional education units are profit-generating or self-sustaining, individual academic departments and schools as well as the colleges’ general funds often rely on them to generate operating income – which may be more needed today than ever, if the institution’s endowment or state funding has taken a hit.
And equally, the mission-driven aspect of serving adults and enabling degree completion and personal growth and achievement is even more important at a time like today. The economic climate is not just an opportunity for schools to rethink how they operate, but for adults to take stock of their priorities in their life and their long-term goals. One reason why the education market is growing is that while consumers are cutting back on material goods and non-essential spending, they are increasing their investment in themselves.
Finally, it is also important to recognize that continuing and professional education units are often the laboratories for innovation within colleges and universities – places where they can experiment with new types of programs, partnerships, and delivery modes. Because organizational innovation is so desperately required in a time like today, this plays into the structure and mission of continuing education. Many colleges are testing new products in continuing education that align with needs created by the economy or the government stimulus program – from crash programs to train professionals who will work in “green” industries, to programming for healthcare professionals or alternative certification routes for teachers, all areas still expected to see increased long-term and short-term demand.
KCH: The adult student has been particularly receptive to online education, and proprietary schools have fared well by meeting this demand. Are non-profit institutions prepared to compete for the online adult ed student?
While proprietary institutions still maintain a disproportionately large market share in the online education market, which is largely comprised of adult students, non-profit institutions are absolutely an important force. According to Eduventures’ latest estimates, non-profit institutions account for 68% of the more than 2 million students enrolled in online education. There’s no doubt that non-profit institutions have the strongest brands, and the high level of quality and other attributes sought out by adult students.
However, there are plenty of challenges in competing in online education, whether it’s against the well-capitalized proprietary institutions or other non-profits. Fundamentally, institutions need to ask if they are prepared to scale their enrollments and infrastructure to run a large and growing online program – while niche opportunities exist as well. Also, often overlooked is the need to reformat basic structures and formats in terms of course design, program length, etc. Many online students are looking for accelerated degree offerings (e.g., completing a degree in half the time through more intensive courses), as well as rolling admissions and multiple start dates per year. Many successful online and for-profit programs are accepting students year round, enrolling students every 6-8 weeks, and offering 7-8 week accelerated courses, compared to the traditional 15 week semester schedule. The for-profits nimbly tailor their programs to this need. Traditionally, the barrier to this sort of alignment in non-profit institutions is faculty. Faculty are obviously important strategic and tactical partners in the process – and increasingly, even the later adopters are getting on board with online education.
Now is a critical moment to seize the online distance education opportunity. The market, the technology, and consumer acceptance have reached an important level of maturity 10-15 years after some of the first web-based degree programs were rolled out. In our survey, 42% of respondents reported that, because of the economy, they were more likely to enroll in an online course or program. Many are opting for online programs because they are worried about their job security and hesitant about the time away from work that a face-to-face evening course would require; or they are shopping around for the best value nationally; others are opting for the part-time online study rather than going to graduate school full-time. In that way, some of the “traditional student” market is shifting to non-traditional/adult models. The universities that miss this trend will be left behind.
KCH: If you had carte blanche, what is the single change you would invoke to increase adult participation in higher education?
Restructure and re-envision the financial aid system – which for all its successes and flaws is essentially designed for full-time, rather than part-time students. Fortunately, this dialogue is happening right now in the U.S. (and at the Presidential level) – but it’s important that adult learners aren’t left out of the picture.
Only about 17% of the higher education population in the U.S. meets the stereotype of the “traditional” 18-22 year-old full-time undergraduate student residing on campus – the majority are a combination of working adults, part-timers, commuters, and transfer students who attend multiple institutions and stop out and re-enroll over the course of their lives. Unfortunately, the current financial aid formulas and disbursement structures are not optimized for part-time adult enrollment.
Financing is, not surprisingly, even more of a concern in today’s economic environment. In our survey, only 43% of respondents agreed with the statement “I am confident about my ability to finance my education.” With some employers cutting back on tuition assistance – about 40-50% of adult learners receive employer support – and a growing aversion to debt and taking on student loans even if they do qualify, financing is the real piece of the puzzle that will take creative thinking and effort to solve. The answer is not going to be fixing the private student loan market as much as it is likely to be totally rebuilding the system of incentives, financial structures, and government programs.
Solutions could range from colleges offering more flexible payment plans to developing more scholarships and grants (from foundations, government, etc.) focused on adult learners; modifying the tax code to provide incentives to adults that are available to traditional students; making employer-provided tuition assistance more tax advantaged; and ensuring that government investments in higher education and job training (think “stimulus” package!) go to adult students and part-time programs, and not just building campus buildings or funding research.
About Eduventures, Inc.
Eduventures has been committed to improving higher education since its founding in 1993. Today, we partner with more than 300 colleges and universities across the United States. Our research membership programs and consulting services help higher education leaders achieve organizational goals and solve pressing challenges with evidence-based insights and guidance
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