Thoughts from higher education leaders: Challenges and emerging trends in online education

Executive Summary

The U.S. no longer holds the leadership position in the percentage of adults who have earned a college degree. President Obama’s goal of recapturing the lead by 2020 will remain elusive unless we dramatically improve our country’s graduation rates. (Similarly, the Lumina Foundation seeks to increase the number of Americans with degrees or high-quality credentials by 2025.) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 56% of students beginning a baccalaureate program each year ever graduate. We cannot begin to address our nation’s college completion crisis unless we focus on the growing number of adults who are either returning to college or who are embarking on this journey for the first time.

This summary captures feedback we have received through a variety of channels, from senior decision makers and other thought leaders, on how higher education can improve the success of the nontraditional learner. Three dominant themes emerged:

  • Program structure—Adult learners need flexible scheduling, require at least some online course instruction, need accelerated programs, and should get credit for experience that the Center for American Progress broadly defines as “beyond institutional borders.”
  • Support services—Support services need to address the financial, personal and academic needs of the adult learner. Financial assistance and financial literacy emerged as key areas of concern. Since many adult learners come unprepared for the rigors of a college education, they also need a broad range of support services to succeed—including academic tutoring, technology assistance, counseling, and guidance in navigating college.
  • Outcomes—A dominant theme was the necessity to acquire the skills or credentials to be more “employable” after graduation. Discussion on outcomes also illuminated the growing debate on the right balance between a liberal and vocational (or practical) education.

Despite differing viewpoints, all agreed that those in nontraditional higher education must view process, service, and program development through the lens of student needs. Several took this concept one step further in advocating for a customer-service approach (a notion anathema to most traditional administrators).

Project Background

InsideTrack works with universities to enhance student and university success. As part of this effort, we regularly engage senior administrators, policy analysts, and other experts in nontraditional higher education in discussions on emerging issues and best practices.

For this project, we used a variety of channels, including in-person leadership forums, webinars, email surveys, LinkedIn discussion groups, and interaction through our blog (EdTrack) to collect a representative sampling of responses to the following three questions:

  1. How will the growth of the nontraditional student population impact your institution in the next five years?
  2. What policy changes or campus innovations would you recommend to address the obstacles facing the nontraditional student? Do you see short-term opportunities to address those obstacles?
  3. Which institutions or organizations are doing something effective to produce more successful college graduates among nontraditional learners?
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