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Turning the Ship to Serve Non-Traditional Students
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Turning the Ship to Serve Non-Traditional Students

As the number of high school graduates steadily declines, higher education institutions that typically serve traditional-age students are looking to increase their enrollment of adults.

The following email Q&A is with Mary Ellen Mazey, president of Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Mazey recently told her institution’s student government the university is looking to increase its focus on non-traditional students by forging links with local community colleges. In this email Q&A, Mazey expands on the notion of partnering with local institutions, shares her thoughts on the responsibility of traditional institutions to focus on the needs of non-traditional students, and discusses how the higher education system can change in response to the decline in high school graduates.

1. What steps can institutions that are largely set up to serve traditional-age students take to transition to serving adults?

Here in Ohio, only 24 percent of citizens have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30 percent nationally. We have a real sense of urgency in the state to rectify this. We must have a prepared and educated workforce for Ohio to continue to be an attractive location for employers.

With a declining population of 18-year-olds, the obvious path to increasing the number of college-educated Ohioans is by reaching non-traditional students.

To accomplish that, we can create partnerships with community colleges in areas of study that have a large number of adult students. In addition, we can establish online or blended programs that are in high demand by the adult student population.  We need to ensure our programs are flexible and serve the needs of adult students.

Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking will also be key. One of things we are exploring at BGSU is reaching out to former students who left in good standing. How can we help them complete their degree? How can we adapt to what they need, rather than expecting them to adapt to us?

2. Following on this theme, can this transition to serving non-traditional students happen quickly, or is it more akin to turning a ship?

It is more akin to turning a ship.

The faculty and faculty administrators must understand the need to serve the adult learner. While many innovative ideas and discoveries have come from universities, most of us in higher education have become accustomed to a pedagogical model that has been around for hundreds of years. We have to take that spirit of innovation that has brought us so much in the sciences and humanities, and apply it to ourselves.

3. What are the most significant challenges an institution may face when its main student demographic shifts?

We must meet the needs of the new student demographic and understand the need to change content and form of delivery. It’s really about understanding how people live. Adult learners don’t have the same schedules traditional students have. While many traditional students juggle a job and school, most of them don’t have families and other responsibilities that chip away at their time and energy.

It is also critical that we understand how a degree will help adult learners and why they are pursuing higher education. Is it about career advancement, setting a good example for their own children or about learning in general? Higher education, as a whole, and particularly those of us at traditional, four-year institutions, need to take more time to listen to this audience.

4. How can institutional partnerships, with community colleges, for example, help universities to better serve non-traditional students?

As a nation, it’s essential we begin to address high student debt by controlling the cost of higher education. These partnerships with community colleges are an effective way to do that and provide a win-win for both institutions. It’s so important to create those pathways for transfer students, and many times it is simply a matter of changing long-standing policies.

Once again, we have to be creative and innovative in how we partner with community colleges. We can’t assume students will automatically make that transfer. We need to find ways to connect them to the university from the first day they start their college education, even if they begin at a community college.

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5 Responses to Turning the Ship to Serve Non-Traditional Students

  1. C Demichelis Reply

    2013/10/21 at 11:41 am

    It’s interesting to hear what those at the top of higher education institutions are thinking about. Ms. Mazey seems like an administrator who is forward thinking and genuinely interested in steering the ship in a new direction. Other administrators I’ve heard will only do so when their arms have been twisted — their loss. Higher education is reaching a point where partnerships among different types of institutions and a focus on non-traditional students will be the norm, and those that embrace the changes enthusiastically stand to gain the most.

  2. Rhonda White Reply

    2013/10/21 at 2:52 pm

    In my opinion, the hesitance to disrupt the traditional pedagogical model, and this especially coming from public institutions, is due to its link to state and federal funding. That’s why President Obama’s comments about revisiting Title IV funding may finally give institutions the impetus for change.

    • Quincy Adams Reply

      2013/10/21 at 4:03 pm

      I think it comes from the perceived exclusivity of higher education. To develop a new pedagogical model means to open an institution up, potentially, to different student populations that may not reflect those traditionally targeted.

  3. Jessica Prince Reply

    2013/10/22 at 9:18 am

    It’s not enough to simply change policies, develop partnerships and expect adults to enroll in our programs without a solid value proposition. More and more, prospective students want to know if the credentials they earn can be applied to their careers right away, whether the debt they’ll accrue can be offset by their career options following graduation and whether the institution they’re eyeing is relevant. We can do everything on our end to create an educational pathway, but the real question we should be asking is: will anyone take it?

    • Vicki Brannock Reply

      2013/10/29 at 12:54 pm

      This is something we have now added to our evaluation process. Looking at the ROI and the length of time it will take to recoup the investment is very important to adult learners. If we are going to properly service this segment of the population we must understand their pain points and address them with transparency.

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