Strategies to Attract and Enroll Nontraditional Modern Students:

Changing Higher Ed podcast 203 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Chris Gilmore

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Changing Higher Ed podcast 203 Strategies to Attract and Enroll Non-Traditional Modern Students with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Chris Gilmore
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

16 April · Episode 203

Strategies to Attract and Enroll Nontraditional Modern Students

39 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

How to adapt marketing and enrollment strategies to attract, enroll, and retain the largest growing demographic – nontraditional modern students.

 

As enrollment numbers decline and the future of many institutions hangs in the balance, higher education leaders are seeking strategies to attract and enroll the rapidly growing population of nontraditional modern students.

 

With the impending enrollment cliff, increasing costs, and changing public perceptions about the value of a degree, colleges and universities must adapt to the needs and preferences of this key demographic. Chris Gilmore, VP of Education Dynamics Enrollment Management, joins Dr. McNaughton for a conversation that offers valuable insights on how institutions can effectively attract, enroll, and retain this growing demographic.

 

It’s no longer a luxury to just think about the nontraditional student. You better be working it into your strategy. – Chris Gilmore

 

The Changing Definition of Nontraditional Students

The concept of nontraditional students is evolving. Historically, age was the primary factor, with nontraditional students typically being in their mid-thirties, already established in a career, and seeking advancement or transition. However, the modern student is now defined by their desire to fit education into an already full life, regardless of age. This shift means that even younger students, as young as 20 years old, can be considered nontraditional if they prioritize fitting school into their lifestyle rather than making their lifestyle revolve around their education.

 

Gilmore emphasizes that this trend is not limited to Gen Z. Across all age demographics, there’s been a transition to fitting education into other life priorities. Higher education institutions must recognize this shift and adapt their strategies to accommodate the needs and preferences of these modern students.

 

Adopting the Product and Consumer Mindset for Modern Student Enrollment

To effectively engage nontraditional modern students, higher education institutions must embrace a product and consumer mindset. Education Dynamics’ annual report on the modern student reveals that these students make purchase decisions based on clear value propositions. Institutions need to view their educational offerings as products and ensure that their websites effectively communicate the value of these products in terms of career outcomes, affordability, and timely completion.

 

Using the term “product” may have shocked academics in the past, but that reaction is on the decline; there are numerous data points supporting the product/consumer perspective.

Modern students view investing in education in the same way they are making any purchase decisions, and to do so, they need to understand three key things:

 

  1. Is the program likely to help them achieve their career goals?

  2. Can they complete the program sooner rather than later?

  3. Can they afford the cost of the program while enrolled at a rate they find acceptable?

 

Institutions must approach these considerations as they would for any other product, ensuring a diverse product line that caters to the varying needs and preferences of nontraditional students.

 

Arizona State University, under the leadership of President Michael Crow, and Unity College, led by President Melik Khoury, are two examples of institutions that are successfully adopting a product and consumer mindset to better serve nontraditional students. ASU is focusing on lifelong learning through certificates and graduate studies, while Unity has separate divisions for face-to-face and online learning, leading to a significant increase in enrollment from 500 to 7,500 students in just seven years.

 

Institutions Must Provide Three Clearly Stated Value Propositions

Nontraditional students seek three essential value propositions when considering an educational program:

  1. The likelihood of the program helping them enter or advance in their desired career field

  2. The ability to complete the program in a timely manner

  3. The affordability of the program within their current financial situation

 

Institutions must clearly articulate these value propositions on their websites and in their marketing materials to attract and engage modern students effectively. Gilmore emphasizes that these value propositions have been core to the nontraditional student experience for years, but most websites and engagement options have not evolved fast enough. It is of the utmost urgency that universities examine how they can make progress toward meeting these needs.

 

The value propositions may involve offering tangible entry and exit points, such as certificates, both for credit and non-credit, allowing students to take bite-sized chunks of education that they can apply directly and receive the desired benefit. Embedding these certificates into degree programs, from associate to graduate levels, can incentivize students to continue their education with the institution.

 

Franklin University in Ohio is a prime example of an institution embedding certificates into degree programs, from associate to graduate levels, to incentivize students to continue their education. By offering these tangible entry and exit points, Franklin is successfully meeting the needs of nontraditional students who seek clear value propositions related to career advancement, timely completion, and affordability.

 

How to Design a Strategy for Marketing to Nontraditional Students

To develop a successful marketing strategy for nontraditional students, institutions should focus on three key areas:

  1. Attracting students: Over 90% of nontraditional students start their search on Google and rely heavily on university websites for information. In fact, data shows that these students are now only requesting information from one to two institutions, down from three to four just a few years ago. This indicates that they are spending significant time conducting independent research on university websites before engaging directly. Institutions must optimize their websites as marketing tools, clearly communicating value propositions related to career outcomes, alumni success, affordability, and program duration.

  2. Enrolling students: Admissions and enrollment staff must be thoroughly trained on the motivators and concerns of nontraditional students. They should be equipped to articulate the unique value propositions of each program and how they align with the student’s goals. This is particularly important for institutions that may not be price leaders, as they need to effectively communicate the differentiating factors that justify their higher costs.

  3. Persisting students: Retention strategies for nontraditional students must account for their unique risk profiles, including balancing work, family, and education. Institutions should streamline processes, offer flexible scheduling, and provide support services tailored to the needs of these students. Academic advisors play a crucial role in this process and should be trained to understand the needs of nontraditional students, offering both academic and life coaching to help them navigate challenges and stay on track.

 

Shifts in Prospective Student Concerns Over the Last 20 Years

While the higher education sector has undergone significant changes over the past two decades, the primary concerns of nontraditional students have remained consistent. Gilmore notes that from his early days working directly with students, their most important pre-application and pre-enrollment concerns have been:

  1. Will this program help me achieve my career goals?

  2. Can I afford it?

  3. Can I complete it in a timeline that works for me?

These concerns remain the primary drivers of nontraditional student interest, and institutions must address them head-on in their marketing and enrollment processes. Admissions teams need to be thoroughly trained on the employment market associated with the programs they represent and be able to have informed conversations with prospective students about how the program aligns with their desired outcomes.

 

Moving Nontraditional Students from the Attraction Phase into the Recruitment and Enrollment Phase

To successfully move nontraditional students from attraction to enrollment, institutions must prioritize speed and flexibility in their processes. Data shows that these students make enrollment decisions within two weeks, and 80% of them will enroll at the first institution that admits them. Moreover, a significant majority expect to begin their courses within 30 days of application acceptance.

 

To meet these expectations, institutions must streamline their admissions processes, offer multiple communication channels (e.g., phone, text, email, chat), and be prepared to enroll students quickly to capitalize on their interests. This may require challenging traditional practices, such as lengthy enrollment committee reviews and focusing on internal systems and processes to enable timely admissions decisions.

 

Under the leadership of former president Russell Lowery-Hart, Amarillo College saw significant gains in persistence and enrollment by putting systems in place to support its students’ needs. For example, when Lowery-Hart asked the recruitment team what they needed, they requested laptop computers to take directly to prospective students, many of whom were first-generation and low-income, to guide them through the enrollment process in their homes rather than requiring them to come to campus. This student-centric approach prioritizes flexibility and meeting students where they are, which is crucial for successfully moving nontraditional students from attraction to enrollment.

 

Retention and Persistence of Nontraditional Modern Students Looks Different Today

Retaining nontraditional students requires a different approach than traditional students. These students often juggle work, family, and education, which increases their risk of attrition. Here are several key strategies for promoting persistence and retention among this population:

 

  • Streamlining processes to minimize administrative burdens: Nontraditional students are less tolerant of bureaucratic hurdles and expect a seamless experience. Institutions should review their systems and processes through this lens, seeking to eliminate unnecessary steps and make it as easy as possible for students to register, access resources, and complete their programs.

  • Providing flexible scheduling options: Many nontraditional students are balancing their education with work and family obligations. Offering a range of scheduling options, including evening, weekend, and online classes, can help these students fit their education into their busy lives.

  • Offering comprehensive support services: Nontraditional students often need support beyond academics. Providing access to services such as academic advising, career coaching, and life coaching can help these students navigate the challenges they face and stay on track to completion.

  • Training faculty and staff to understand and address the unique needs of nontraditional students: Gilmore emphasizes the importance of investing in training and development for those who work directly with nontraditional students. Academic advisors, in particular, are the lifeblood of continuing student operations and need to be equipped to provide both academic and life coaching to help students overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

 

Three Takeaways for University Presidents and Boards

  1. Recognize that the needs of nontraditional students are different and require a tailored approach to attraction, engagement, and retention. Gilmore stresses that effectively attracting, engaging, and retaining this population will require different practices than those used for traditional students.

  2. Prioritize training and development for faculty and staff who engage with nontraditional students to ensure they are equipped to meet the unique needs of this population. The quality of interactions these students have with university staff is a significant influencer, and investing in training is critical.

  3. Consider partnering with third-party service providers and partners to fill gaps in internal capabilities and optimize the nontraditional student experience. Institutions don’t need to build everything in-house and can leverage the expertise and resources of external partners to enhance their offerings and support for nontraditional students.

 

As student preferences and expectations continue to evolve, institutions that effectively adapt to the needs of modern students will be well-positioned for success. By adopting a product and consumer mindset, clearly articulating value propositions, and designing tailored strategies for attraction, enrollment, and retention, colleges and universities can tap into the growing market of modern students and secure their future in an increasingly competitive environment.

 

The path forward requires a fundamental shift in thinking, challenging long-held assumptions and practices, and embracing a student-centric approach that prioritizes flexibility, speed, and support. Those institutions that rise to this challenge will not only survive but thrive in the years ahead, positioning themselves as leaders in serving the needs of the modern student.

 

About Our Podcast Guest

Chris Gilmore is responsible for leading all aspects of the EducationDynamics Enrollment Management Services Contact Center operations. This includes internal enrollment advising teams working on behalf of EducationDynamics’ Enrollment Management Services client institutions. Chris has spent his career in the online higher education field and has held various leadership roles at institutions, including the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. During his time as Chief Operating Officer of Educators Serving Educators, a higher education consulting division of Excelsior College, Chris partnered with institutions seeking to enhance their online operation by investing in enrollment management, student services, and innovative program development. Chris has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Master of Business Administration, and a Doctorate of Education in Education Leadership through the University of New England.

Chris Gilmore on LinkedIn →

 

About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.

 

Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 203 – Chris Gilmore

 

[00:01:09] Drumm McNaughton: Chris, welcome to the show.

[00:01:11] Chris Gilmore: Hey, thanks for having me. Looking forward to it.

[00:01:13] Drumm McNaughton: My pleasure. We’re going to have a great conversation today. Before we get into it, you work with Education Dynamics, which is one of those really great firms that works with nontraditional students. Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got here, your background, et cetera.

[00:01:31] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, sure. I am with Education Dynamics. I’m the vice president for our enrollment management area. I oversee all of our student coaching operations. I’ve been with Education Dynamics in that role about six and a half years, but I’ve spent my entire career, for the most part, working with nontraditional students, mostly in enrollment management, both on the new and continuing side of the student experience, on enrollment management, as well as campus operations.

[00:01:58] So prior to joining Education Dynamics, I have mostly been on the university side of things. but now in my current role, I really enjoy, to be, on the other side of it, working with several university partners to help optimize the experience of their nontraditional students.

[00:02:12] Drumm McNaughton: Mm-Hmm, . And, and just so that listeners understand, what are the differences between what we call traditional and non-traditional students?

[00:02:23] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, that’s a good question, because that’s really changing. It used to be, had you asked me that a couple years ago, I probably would have pointed to the age difference, as the primary differentiator between traditional, which we would have defined as that kind of typical, out-of-high school, 18 to 22 year old, age demographic, versus nontraditional, which is which historically was, you know, mid-thirties person who’s already, you know, in a career field, but maybe wanting to do a little bit more in their current career or likely wanting to transition in their career.

[00:03:00] Now though, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen that demographic, really change a bit to where I personally am not defining it so much based solely on age range because we’re seeing younger and younger students that are enrolling in full time online programs. And I think their reasons for that are varied, but a lot of it is just the desire of the modern student is fitting school in with an already very full life. And to me, that is a nontraditional student.It’s anybody who, life is not fitting into school. It’s school that is fitting into life, and that can be the case for a 20 year old, and it certainly can be the case for a 36 year old who’s working full time and has family.

[00:03:47] Drumm McNaughton: That’s interesting that you put it in that perspective, what that reminds me of is the current Gen Z is “work fits into their life and their lifestyle, not lifestyle works around work”,

[00:04:05] Chris Gilmore: Very, very much. Yeah, good point. that’s a great example, and I think the same thing, not, not limited to Gen Z, of course, but across all age demographics, there’s been that transition more broadly to I need to fit this into the other things that I have on my plate.

[00:04:23] Drumm McNaughton: And that makes perfect sense. But higher ed is hitting troubled waters at this point. We all know about the demographic cliff or the enrollment cliff that’s coming up as a result of the great recession back in 2008. That is leading to a reduction of the quote “traditional students, the out-of-high school, moving directly to college”.

[00:04:46] There’s also a public perception of higher ed, not being worth it. And the cost has gone up significantly. This is forcing many higher ed institutions to change their focus instead of looking toward the traditional students, colleges, universities shifting their focus to beyond just the traditional students and going to the non trads.

[00:05:14] Chris Gilmore: Yeah. Well, I think you’re I think you’re absolutely right I would say that the vast majority of traditional universities have to some extent noticed this market and been somewhat focused on this market over the last decade. And certainly there are exceptions to that, but I think they have noticed this market over the last decade.

[00:05:38] But where I think you’ll see an increased urgency now is to your point, with some of the changes in the challenges, the demographic cliff, the perception challenges, in particular around traditional higher education, it’s no longer a luxury to just think about the nontraditional student. You better be working it into your strategy, because unlike the traditional age students, which as you referenced, the enrollment potential there is decreasing, there is an exponential opportunity for schools to do better with, what we’ll probably call the nontraditional student.

[00:06:18] But this is just really, I’m trying to get in the habit of transitioning to say, this is just the modern student. This is the student that has other priorities, but needs to view completion of the degree as attainable and doable within their current life. I’ve definitely seen an increase in traditional universities understanding that they need to factor that student market, that portion of the market into their enrollment strategy more so than they have in the last ten years.

[00:06:48] Drumm McNaughton: And you’re right. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it as well, but I always fall back on the consulting model, you know, when you’re bringing a new client on, it’s much more difficult to bring that new client on than to sell repeat business with a previous client. You already know that client, you know what’s going on, et cetera, and you can help them in multiple ways, hopefully.

[00:07:14] Colleges haven’t, universities haven’t been thinking along these lines. They have been thinking about one and done rather than lifetime learning. I mean there’s two two examples that come to mind that are doing this really well. Michael Crow at Arizona State, they’re looking at lifetime learning through certificates, graduate studies, etc. And then you have Malik Korey at the uh, Unity Environmental University up in Maine, who has separate divisions, he’s changed the business model to where he’s got face to face, he’s got online, which is the majority of his things, and they have when he took over seven years ago, they had 500 students, they’re up at 7, 500 and expect to get to 10, 000 within the next two years. I mean, to me, those are success stories, that they’re viewing higher education not as a one and done, but as a continuous education throughout life.

[00:08:22] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, great examples. I agree with both of those. We have the privilege of actually partnering with Unity Environmental University over the last several years, and it’s been incredible to watch them grow. And a big reason of it, a big reason behind that, I think you articulated really well, is how they’ve approached the business model of higher education. You referenced lifelong learning, and that is so core to the nontraditional student experience I think it’s of the utmost urgency that universities are really examining how they can make progress towards that.

[00:09:02] And some of the examples that I would point out are when universities are considering working better with the nontraditional student market, the modern student, who again needs to view school as achievable and attainable without sacrificing everything else that they have going on in their life. You really have to approach that from a lifelong learning model. And that means that these students need to see that they have entry points to the university, but also tangible exit points, too. And they may step in and step out, step back in, step back out. And that is okay, and we should be set up to support that with products that help them mature along the student life cycle. Um, so certificates both for credit and non credit I think is a big thing. You know on the marketing side we see year over year demand for certificates has been increasing. Modern students want to be able to take, for lack of a better word, a bite sized chunk out of higher education that they can feel is doable in a certain timely, that I can then go out and directly apply and receive some of that benefit that I wanted when I considered this program.

[00:10:26] Certificates are fantastic ways to do that. And there’s a lot of innovation going on, too, between embedding these certificates into degree programs, whether that’s starting at the associates degree, bachelor’s degree, graduate degree. You know, there’s really no reason that schools shouldn’t be innovating here, to make sure that the modern student who takes a certificate here is well incentivized down the road to apply those 12 credit hours from that certificate, rolling straight into their graduate degree program. And if they have a good experience at the university, they’re very likely to do that. And that is one of the things that we talk with university partners a lot about is you got to really optimize your engagement and your enrollment experience for these students, but you also have to optimize their continuing student experience.

[00:11:15] And when we do that, these students aren’t wanting to go out and shop for schools over and over again. If they completed a graduate certificate with you and they had a good experience, and it’s embedded and there’s some incentive for them to apply those credit hours to a graduate degree program, you got a good shot at bringing them back time and time again.

[00:11:35] And we should celebrate that.

[00:11:36] Drumm McNaughton: Absolutely. There’s two things that you said that I want to key in on. One is you use the term “product”. Okay, that is a change of mindset that higher education hasn’t fully adapted, or I would say even mostly adapted at this point.

[00:11:54] Chris Gilmore: Yeah.

[00:11:55] Drumm McNaughton: You’re offering products to the marketplace, you have consumers out there, it’s a different mindset, but it’s something that I think higher ed needs to catch up with versus, you know, taking the lead because your customers, your students are already thinking along those lines.

[00:12:14] You know, what’s in it for me? What’s my return on investment?

[00:12:18] Chris Gilmore: Oh, a hundred percent. I use product and what I have seen is over the decades plus that I, you know, use that phrase, I’m shocking fewer and fewer academics with that word. So I do think we’re making progress on viewing it that way. But there are just so many data points that really support viewing it that way.

[00:12:39] Um, one of the things education dynamics does every year is we do a really exhaustive report on the modern student, the online college student.And it’s just a collection of data around marketing, how do online college students think, what’s their consideration process, pre enrollment, application, everything like that. Super valuable.

[00:13:00] One of the things that I feel like is really, really reinforced every year here is that for the modern, nontraditional student, the value propositions need to be very clear. So they are very much making a purchase decision. And in order to do that, they need to understand a few basic things.

[00:13:24] Is this product likely to get me into the field that I want to transition into or further along in the field that I already am?

[00:13:35] Is this product capable of getting me there sooner rather than later?

[00:13:40] And, can I afford to cover the cost of this product while I’m enrolled, at whatever rate they have targeted is acceptable to them.

[00:13:50] Those three things, those are really all about making decisions around the purchase of a product. So the university course, especially when we’re talking about lifelong learning, certificates and degree programs and everything like that, those are our products. And we really, really have to be talking about the value proposition of our product line and making sure that we have a very diverse product line.

[00:14:11] You know, to your point, these students may jump in, they may jump out, they may complete the certificate, they may complete a non credit course. And that is great and fine. And we need to have a diverse product line to support that.

[00:14:24] Drumm McNaughton: And it also, I feel like we’re getting off our topic, but I think this is really important. Institutions need to change how they are thinking about developing these quote “products”. First off, higher ed has good credibility. If they’re developing products, within the ivory towers, and they’re not reaching out to the employers to say, what is it that you really need in this area? That’s a big mistake. Second, if in fact, there’s just saying, yeah, go out and develop the certificate program, but you don’t have any cost guardrails around that, how are you going to gain a return of investment? So I think things they’ve got, institutions have to think about these things very differently than they have in the past.

[00:15:22] Chris Gilmore: Absolutely. Yeah. Especially on the bringing employers to the table. You know, that’s one of the value propositions that needs to be really clearly articulated to the modern nontraditional student is a connection with employment and job outcomes. What better way to do that than to make sure that we’re developing curriculum and programs in partnership and collaboration with employers?

[00:15:45] Drumm McNaughton: Absolutely. And you and I, when we chatted yesterday a little bit about this, we talked about Franklin University in Ohio and they are doing these very things with their degree programs and their certificates.

[00:15:58] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, absolutely. Franklin’s a great example, and there are several really great examples of schools that are bringing employers to the table, forming these partnerships that aren’t just a partnership on paper. They’re a partnership that feeds both the inputs of curriculum development and then two years later down the road feeds the outputs of graduates being better equipped to be a viable candidate for these positions at these companies.

[00:16:25] Lots of schools are doing it, you know, unfortunately that stuff doesn’t usually make the headlines um within higher education, we’re in a bit of more of a doom and gloom cycle. But yeah, there’s tons of examples of really great innovation going on there.

[00:16:38] Drumm McNaughton: So if an institution wants to branch out to attracting more nontraditional students, what are the things that they need to think about? Because we know, you and I both know, that doing enrollment for traditional students is very different than that of the nontraditionals.

[00:17:02] Chris Gilmore: Sure Yeah, it’s a good point. For traditional students these schools have largely written the book and they’re doing well with it, but diminishing returns as you referenced earlier with the demographic shifts and things like that. When they look at how to more effectively engage a nontraditional student, a more modern student, I tend to think of three areas of advising these schools.

[00:17:30] You need to really look at how are you attracting these students? How are you enrolling these students? And how are you persisting these students? And so for attracting these students, I think a good starting point is some of the data that we have around how these students make their decisions. 90 plus percent of students, of nontraditional modern students, are starting their search on Google, not surprising, and they are ending up on our websites.They are doing quite a bit of independent research before they make the decision to engage with the university. And this is one data point that I track a lot year over year, and four or five years ago, we were seeing that nontraditional modern students typically, we’re requesting information from three to four institutions. That is down to one to two institutions. To me, that tells me one big thing. They are spending a lot of independent research time, on our websites primarily. So first and foremost is we need to view our EDU pages, our websites, as a marketing tool for nontraditional students. And in order to make that an effective marketing tool, we have to understand what’s important to these students when they’re in the attraction phase of the funnel.

[00:18:53] And fortunately, we have a lot of data on that too. These students are interested in things that wouldn’t shock you. They want to understand, is this program likely to help me achieve my career outcome? And of course, everybody has different career outcome aspirations, but if your website is not effectively communicating the value proposition of employment outcomes, highlighting where your alumni are, if you happen to be one of those schools that’s innovating, bringing employers into the curriculum development, articulating that in your website. We really need to give that confidence there when they’re doing this independent research.

[00:19:32] The other thing is price and affordability. And those are not necessarily the same thing, and students need to understand both. And nontraditional modern students want to be able to easily find price on our websites, and the vast majority report that they cannot easily do that. That’s very frustrating. You think of a buying decision and a buying process for any other standard product, where the price is very difficult to find. What do we do? We close out and move on to the next one. You know, it’s not incumbent on me to force your system to tell me how much it costs to buy this product. But yeah, we don’t necessarily do the best job of that in higher education, and the nontraditional students really describe that.So we need to be making sure that our value propositions are clearly articulated on our website. We need to understand that the website is a marketing tool, and we need to be very attractive during that attraction phase of the funnel. Because once we get them there, we know that students are now only requesting from one to two schools. So I talked to our partners a lot about, if you get a student that’s coming to your funnel, there’s a good chance that they’ve already identified you meet some of their core criteria, but we now need to be in the engagement process. And that also looks a lot different than working with traditional students too.

[00:20:54] Drumm McNaughton: It’s got to match their area of interest, they’ve done their research already. One of those key things for them is, what you talked about, is affordability and a return on their investment. If they go back and get this advanced degree, if they go back and get a certificate or whatever, how is it going to help them?

[00:21:14] I mean, years ago, it used to be, you’d go back to school to complete your degree to get a promotion or get higher pay. I don’t think those have basically changed, but I think the buyer now is far more discriminating. They want to see how much it costs. They want to see what the return is. And What are the outcomes I think your idea of listing what some of your graduates are doing and where they’ve gone is important for them to identify With somebody who’s already gone through the program.

[00:21:48] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, there’s so much that’s changed in higher education over the last 20 years, but from the time that I first started working directly with students, one of their most important points of concerns, pre application and certainly pre enrollment, is this going to get me where I want to go? Am I going to be able to afford it? Can I do it in a timeline that works for me? Those are still primary drivers of nontraditional student interest. And so we as institutions, and as good partners to our institutions, really have to be pushing, clearly defining those things for these nontraditional students in particular.

[00:22:29] When they enter into our funnel, request information, it also is a big difference too in terms of now we’re looking at engaging this student. You know, we’ve won a significant part of the battle. We got them to request information from us. Probably only doing that with one or two total schools, but when we have those admissions conversations Our admissions and enrollment staff are admissions professionals that are speaking with these prospective students. They also need to be thoroughly trained on the motivators of these students and be able to articulate the specific and unique value propositions that these students are concerned with. So that to me says we need to be really focused on training and developing these teams, these employees, to fully understand the employment market, associated with the programs that they’re representing, to be able to have those kinds of conversations with students and help them understand their concerns. and that this program is associated with the outcome that they’re looking for.

[00:23:32] In terms of price and affordability. That’s another big one, too. You know, I often reference the data point that when it comes to nontraditional students, it’s a very price sensitive market. But we have a lot of data that shows that they are not necessarily going to go with the lowest cost provider. If a higher price provider checks the other boxes for them, those other boxes for them are very important.

[00:24:00] So if you’re a price leader, that’s fantastic. I think we should all be very focused on what we can do to limit the cost of a credential. And if you’re in that boat, fantastic. If you’re not, and you’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, and certainly if you’re on the higher end of pricing consideration, your teams all the more so need to be trained on the value propositions of the program and what specifically differentiates it that should factor in the student’s decision making.

[00:24:30] Drumm McNaughton: I don’t want to gloss over this one point that you just made about training your admissions staff to have these outcome conversations. This is important. And it’s very important because your traditional students, they think about these things to some degree, but not to the same degree that your nontraditional students do. Is that a fair statement.

[00:24:54] Chris Gilmore: Sure, absolutely.

[00:24:55] You know, your traditional students, often I think we have a FAFSA default for them. You know, we’re going to point you this way and, you know, the vast majority of them that works for, but you’re not traditional students just by proxy of who they are and what they have going on, pricing and affordability, those mean different things.

[00:25:13] Drumm McNaughton: And so I think we fleshed out the attracting piece really well. There’s two other pieces to that. There’s the enrollment or the engagement piece, and then there’s the persistence and retaining. How do you get students, the nontraditional students, how do you move them into the recruitment and enrolling from the attracting?

[00:25:36] Chris Gilmore: Yeah, good question, because I think this is also really different than how you do the same things with traditional student demographics. For nontraditional, more modern students, we talked a bit about the training and development aspects for the team that’s going to be speaking with these students and I can’t enforce that enough. It’s critical that they understand the motivators of this market and that they’re able to go conversationally where this student needs them to, in order to help them understand and make a fully informed decision. The other thing too, is just how we’re engaging with this market. You know, historically, higher education has a, ” we can dabble in a bit of a gatekeeping mentality of, you know,

[00:26:18] We’re hiring, and, you know, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of that yet, but, you know, students will find us, and this is our process, and this is how they work, we work, and they will have to jump through those hoops if they want to attend.

[00:26:32] Ugh, the opposite is how we need to be thinking about nontraditional modern students. And that is, these students are busy, they are highly informed consumers, they have already done a bit of independent research before they’ve engaged with us. And so once we are talking about actually engaging them in the funnel, it’s all about how and when that student chooses to engage with us.

[00:26:56] So we talk a lot about the important aspect of speed. You know, that’s another thing higher education historically has not been a leader in, speedy processes, but when that student makes the decisions to inquire, we need to have the systems and the platforms and the staff to respond to them quickly, to offer them multiple channels of engagement too.

[00:27:18] So these students may not, they may request information at 1 30 in the afternoon when we call them at 1 32 in the afternoon, they don’t answer their phone,and that’s okay because we want to be able to communicate them in a channel that they are comfortable with. So are we quickly sending them out a text message and letting them know that we’re there via text?

[00:27:38] Are we active in a chat communication channel that they can engage via chat or via email? And we really need to be optimized in all of those channels so that when and how that student chooses to engage with us, we’re still ready to conduct the full student experience there. And if you want to do that via text, let’s do the majority of this via text. And if phone works better for you, well then we can jump on the phone for that. Um, but it’s just important that we’re really thinking of how and when they want to communicate and that we are optimized in whatever channel that is.

[00:28:12] Drumm McNaughton: And one of the things that really blows me away about the modern student is they make their decision, they’ve already done their research, they make their decision for enrollment or not within two weeks and that most go with the first institution that accepts them.

[00:28:31] Chris Gilmore: Yeah.

[00:28:33] Drumm McNaughton: This is, This blows me away.

[00:28:35] Well, it does because they’ve got lives and this is, you’re fitting into their lives, not…

[00:28:41] Chris Gilmore: You know, when we make a purchase decision, you know, independent of higher ed, you think of any purchase decision. Once we get to that decision point, don’t you want to get on with it? You know, most of us do. I do. And I think nontraditional modern students are very similar to that.

[00:28:55] The data says, to your point, within two weeks, they are often making these application and enrollment decisions. Eighty plus percent of them will ultimately choose to enroll at the first institution that admits them. And a significant majority of nontraditional students have an expectation that they will actually begin their courses within 30 days of their admin.

[00:29:19] Drumm McNaughton: Mm hmm.

[00:29:20] Chris Gilmore: Everything is about speed. And so that speed has to be applied to every part of our process as higher education institutions as well. So when I talk about engaging them, it’s a quick response. When I talk about engaging them, it’s multiple modalities and channels that we’re working.

[00:29:38] But also once we connect with them and actually move them into the application funnel, you really articulated a very powerful data point to me, which is also that 80 percent of them want to enroll at the first institution that admits them. And in order to be that institution, we need to be the first one that admits them, and we are not always quick at that.And that’s, you know, a very unique to higher education thing that we have a customer knocking on our door saying, can I do business with you, and we take multiple weeks to say, sure, here’s your opportunity. But it’s really looking internally at our systems and our processes, our SLAs, for how quickly we can turn around admin decisions, and really selling the why to sometimes our internal stakeholders on why it’s critical that we’re able to do this in a timely fashion. Because if we don’t, we might not necessarily have the opportunity to

[00:30:27] Drumm McNaughton: Mm hmm. So the era of, you know, we’ll take this to our enrollment committee and we’ll get back to you in five weeks or seven weeks. If you’re looking to enroll nontraditional students, you’ve got to redo your business processes to make sure that folks can enroll within three or four days, I would say.

[00:30:50] Chris Gilmore: Absolutely. Yeah, I agree with that.

[00:30:53] Drumm McNaughton: So the last piece of this it’s the persistence, it’s the retention of the students.

[00:30:59] Non-Trads are different.

[00:31:02] Chris Gilmore: They are, their risk profile is different just by proxy of who they are and what they’re doing. they have a lot of plates that they are balancing and they’re likely working. The vast majority of them are working full time. The vast majority of them have dependents at home. A non insignificant portion of them are balancing that very difficult life stage between caring for dependents and caring for aging parents.

[00:31:26] It’s a lot going on and all of that increases the retention risk with the group too. So I think the first step when it comes to persistence and retention, with nontraditional students is understanding that they are very, very different than traditional students. And then the second step is looking at our systems and processes through that lens.

[00:31:51] One of the things that I think is a very, very different service need for this market, traditional students, you know, school is life for a portion of their life and they’re very used to catering to renewing a schedule every single term new registration course selection things like that and that’s just kind of the way we do business With nontraditional students, the last thing we really want to do is make them go back through these steps every eight weeks or so, picking up their new course, submitting their new registration, things like that.

[00:32:26] So it requires that we look at that and say, how can we streamline this? For this busy working adult who wants to get this done quickly and viewing our curriculum, our registration portals, everything like that to make this students have to jump through as few hoops as possible. The second thing that I always point out here is again with training in the right resources.

[00:32:50] We, I think academic advisors are the lifeblood of a lot of our continuing student operations. The helping those teams understand what are the needs of the nontraditional market. And sometimes that can include general life coaching. These students have a lot going on and if we talk about it with them up front and we help equip them for the inevitable future where something changes in their personal life, they lose a job, they increase their working hours, etc, you name it, that can cause chaos, and the first thing that’s going to get pushed out of that is school. But if we can approach that with them early, help normalize that for them, and help them make game plans, when it happens a couple semesters later, they’ve got that source of connection and support, and they feel confident connecting with that advisor to have those conversations. And that advisor can further normalize that by pointing them back to the conversations that they have had and their mitigation plan to be able to stay on track.

[00:33:53] Drumm McNaughton: All of these things go to changing the mentality at your institution to make sure that you are in sync. It’s not getting the students to adapt to you, it’s you adapting to who your prospective students are, and will be to be able to make sure these things happen.

[00:34:14] One example that I love to talk about is Russell Lowry Hart, who’s the current chancellor at the Austin Community College district was the president at Amarillo College. They had huge gains in persistence enrollment because they put the systems in place necessary to make sure that their students could do it. But when he came on board, he asked, what do you need? Recruiting said, we want laptop computers. Well, why? Because our students, first gen, low SES, they’re at home. They have to have the conversation with their parents and everybody else. We need to be able to take the laptop out to them to go through the enrollment process rather than make them come to us.

[00:35:03] Chris Gilmore: Yeah,

[00:35:05] Drumm McNaughton: Incredible.

[00:35:06] Chris Gilmore: Yeah. It’s great. I mean, I’m glad you brought up community colleges because a lot of our community colleges have been living in this space of meeting students where they’re at for decades. Now we’re seeing some of the application to more traditional higher education as well.

[00:35:20] Drumm McNaughton: So we are at the end of our time, unfortunately, because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Chris, I want to thank you for joining us today.

[00:35:32] This has been a fascinating conversation. Three takeaways for presidents and boards.

[00:35:39] Chris Gilmore: Oh, good question. So I would start with the basic understanding that the needs of the nontraditional, modern student are different,and to effectively attract, engage and retain them is going to take a different practice.

[00:35:59] Another thing that I would point out is training and development of the people in our organizations and institutions that are primarily responsible for engaging with this group needs to be prioritized. It’s a critically important role and there’s a lot of data that tells us that these nontraditional students are influenced by the quality of interactions that they have with the staff.

[00:36:28] And the third thing that I would think of is just as we’re planning your internal operation, understanding what your internal team can do well, and if there’s a bottleneck there, really looking to the market, because there’s so many third parties, servicers and providers and partners, that, you know, you don’t have to build everything yourself in house, and you can look to some of these partners for that when the time comes.

[00:36:52] Drumm McNaughton: Well, Chris, thank you. This has been a fabulous conversation for me. What’s next for you? What’s next for Education Dynamics?

[00:37:01] Chris Gilmore: Well, I think what’s next for us is continuing doing what we’re doing. We’re supporting a number of great schools who are innovating and thinking about how we can better serve this adult student market. And for anybody that’s interested in that, one thing I would throw out is, I referenced a few times, some of the data points that we got from our online student report.

[00:37:20] If you want a copy of that report, you can get it on our website. Um, If you can’t find it there, you’re welcome to reach out to me on LinkedIn, or if you can reach me via email, happy to send out that report. But just for traditional institutions that are thinking about better serving this market, it’s a ton of great information.

[00:37:37] Drumm McNaughton: Great. Well, thank you so much. I’ll make sure that the guests can get in touch with you guys if need be.Again, thank you so much. I look forward to another conversation with you in the future.

[00:37:49] Chris Gilmore: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. I enjoyed it.

 

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