Serving non-traditional learners is a challenge. Actually, scratch that. Knowing who non-traditional learners are is a challenge.
Non-traditional learners are defined, primarily, by what they’re not. They do not fit the mold of 18-22 year olds, fresh out of high school and enrolled in their first, full-time degree program. They might work, they might have dependents, they may have taken a break after high school.
There are a huge number of individuals who don’t fit into the traditional mold. And their backgrounds, needs, aims and challenges are as diverse as they are.
Some are pursuing degrees and credit-bearing credentials, but in a flexible manner that allows them to work. Some are pursuing non-credit credentials in order to get a job. Some are balancing the demands of their postsecondary program against taking care of children. Some are taking courses to upskill or reskill for the sake of their career. Some are enrolled in intensive English language programs that will allow them to matriculate into a traditional degree program.
What these learners all have in common is limited time at their disposal, and an inability (or unwillingness) to navigate the often byzantine and uncompromising bureaucracy of your average college or university.
They can’t necessarily line up at the registrar’s office during business hours to get a copy of their transcript.
They can’t necessarily visit their professors’ and department head’s offices to process a course drop.
These learners are looking for a seamless and sensible administrative experience that allows them to focus the limited amount of time and energy they can invest in their higher education on their educational pursuits, not on administrative trivialities.
“A college student’s life does not fit neatly into the traditional 9-to-5 hours of administrative offices,” said Jack Chen, chief information officer at Adelphi University, in an interview with The EvoLLLution.
“Outside of those hours, a student might need a waiver to switch a class, request a transcript, file for graduation or address an outstanding payment. Even during those hours, a student would prefer to access the information on a cell phone while taking a break from studying rather than wait in a line. Providing this level of information to students 24/7 is more efficient, especially in the case of time-sensitive deadlines.”
Delivering on these heightened expectations, and creating an environment where non-traditional learners feel supported—both inside and outside the classroom—requires the development of an infrastructure that allows them to manage much of their own experience.
Just like with banking, air travel, food delivery and shopping, modern learners want to be able to drive their engagement with their college or university at their convenience.
“Students, like everyone else, want information in a nanosecond,” Chen continued. “The administrative aspect of college—registering for classes, completing forms—is something students want taken care of immediately. Furthermore, students have become accustomed to the Amazon model of access and services. They want to be treated like customers with excellent customer service.”
Offering this kind of service isn’t just important from a student support and success perspective… it’s essential for institutional competitiveness and viability as well.
“As continuing education becomes increasingly commodified, leaders must understand that program offerings are only part of creating a competitive advantage,” wrote Heather Chakiris, chief student experience officer at UCLA Extension, in an article on The EvoLLLution.
“If you’re not able to compete on price, you better be able to compete on service,” she continued. “How are your students interacting with you? Are they walking into your building because they want to, or is it because your enrollment operations are paper-based and they have no other choice? Are you requiring students to fill out the same information repeatedly because their data is sitting in one system that doesn’t “talk” to another system? How long is it taking them to get a transcript?”
So, what do non-traditional students have in common? Well, they have a common expectation for a customer experience that broadly mirrors what they get from every industry outside of higher education. Frankly, this is probably an expectation for most traditional students as well.
“A student looks at higher education not only as an experience, but also as a commodity,” said Jeff Fanter, vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing management at Ivy Tech Community College.
“They’re purchasing a product, which is knowledge, and they can choose whether or not to purchase it from our institution. They can choose to go elsewhere. So why wouldn’t we make the purchasing process—that is, the enrollment process—as easy as possible?
Offering students the capacity for self-service is essential for a 21st century college or university. It’s central to meeting learners’ expectations, creating a customer experience that doesn’t drive prospects away, and encouraging the retention of learners through their offerings and into the future.
What’s more, there’s a staff efficiency argument for self-service to be made as well.
“Meeting this expectation can also greatly improve the efficiency of our business operations due to the decrease in hands-on processing,” said Christine Blakney, managing director of student business services at Texas Tech University, in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “Since many business offices are being challenged to do more with fewer staff, providing resources that allow the student to manage their account directly helps us to meet that goal.”