4 Signs That You Have a Modern Learner Engagement Gap
For decades, a gap has been slowly emerging that’s divided students and higher education providers more and more each year. At its core, this gap stems from a disconnect between the ever-heightening expectations of modern learners, and the rigidly-status quo experience offered by colleges and universities across North America.
As many trends accelerated in their progression through the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shift to distance and remote learning, the engagement gap’s growth also accelerated.
This engagement gap is visible in a number of ways. In our 2021 State of CE survey, nearly three quarters of respondents said their website should play a major role in driving student engagement, but only 10% of respondents rated their own websites as very effective in supporting engagement, enrollment and retention goals.
We also see the engagement gap emerge in students’ learner-to-earner pathways (or lack thereof!). While the majority of students enroll in a postsecondary degree program to achieve career outcomes, 2/5 recent college graduates are underemployed. This reality just continues to feed the cycle of massive student debt—which has exceeded $1.5T (11% of which is delinquent).
So what does it take to address the modern learner engagement gap? To start off… you need to determine if your institution has one. Spoiler alert: you probably do.
The 4 Telltale Signs: Do You Have a Modern Learner Engagement Gap?
Higher education providers of all sizes are challenged by an engagement gap between their offerings, services and experiences, and the expectations of modern learners. However, there are a few major warning signs leaders should be on the lookout for:
1. Your Relationship with Students is Transactional
Is your relationship with students transactional? You’ll know it is if you’re focused on students enrolling in one-time programs where they earn a single credential and then progress to “alumni”—whose engagement with the institution is limited to donations and occasional football games.
Transactional student relationships happen when colleges don’t proactively encourage students to continue coming back for upskilling, reskilling and ongoing learning across their lifetime. This kind of persistent access supports career development and growth. Importantly: it places your institution as the hub for a student’s lifelong learning… not just the place where they learned how to be an adult!
2. You Don’t Offer the Digital Experience Students Expect
An engagement gap between your institution and your learners will definitely emerge if you lack a digital engagement infrastructure that meets students where they are.
That’s a lot of jargon, so let’s break that idea down. Do your students have no choice but to call, fax, or come to the campus to conduct basic tasks like registering for courses, accessing their transcript or getting information? Are you able to offer them an Amazon-like shopping experience? Does your website feed them relevant programs, services or offerings so they don’t have to dig? Are you suggesting related courses or programs that might interest them?
If you answered “no” to any of those questions, you have low digital engagement with students. This will especially come out if you look at performance stats around web conversions and they’re low, or if your shopping cart abandonment rates are high.
By making it easy for students to see how your institution addresses their needs, you’ll more clearly stand out as the learning provider for them!
3. You’re Seeing Dips in Enrollment Numbers
Enrollment growth is a priority for every higher education provider of every description. For some schools, enrollment numbers are critical for financial stability. For others, they’re central to ensuring the mission of the institution is being met.
In either case, those numbers are increasingly difficult to meet. The marketplace for every kind of student enrollment—whether you’re focused on degree programming, non-credit courses or workforce training—is highly-competitive and crowded. But the fact is… there’s growing demand for education programming (as long as it meets the expectations of the learner!).
If your institution is still suffering to bring people in the door, it’s essential to look into why. Maybe you’re not offering a diverse enough set of credentials to meet students where they are. Maybe your website makes it impossible for prospective students to see what you’re actually offering. Maybe your alumni engagement tactics need to be updated.
In either case, demand for ongoing education suggests that no school should be dealing with enrollment declines. Addressing the gap between learner expectations and and institutional engagement will help bridge that divide if you’re experiencing this challenge.
4. You Don’t Identify Clear Pathways to Work
Students want to see clear connections between their education and labor market outcomes. This kind of visibility right from the start of their engagement with you helps keep them on track through their programs, and also supports their outcomes and direction after they graduate.
For some institutions, career pathways are embedded at the core of their program offerings—to the extent that career and salary information is displayed right on the program page! But for others, career support only goes as far as Career Advising Services, who students need to manually book appointments to visit and appointment-booking is restricted to specific hours of specific days.
Unfortunately, if students are progressing toward a credential but don’t know what it’s going to get them—or the jobs and salary they’re preparing themselves for—it sets them up for underemployment at graduation (if they even get that far).
You know you have a learn-work disconnect if students struggle to get career advising, if they lack digital badges that help communicate specific skills and competencies, and if they don’t have a clear sense of how their credential connects to a career. This is an absolutely essential gap for higher education leaders to address.
Solving the Modern Learner Engagement Gap
Solving the modern learner engagement gap is not easy, but it’s not impossible.
Higher education providers have an incredible opportunity to lead a paradigm shift in our society. We need to increase our credential attainment nationwide. We need to prepare people for demanding and constantly-evolving careers in challenging and emerging industries. We have a responsibility to our community to make sure that folks can access education without barriers, and that the programming leads to high-value outcomes with clear ROI.
Last updated: March 1, 2021