Learn how to engage with non-traditional students.

Six Steps to Attract and Retain Non-Traditional Students

Adult learners are the reality on university campuses across North America, and nowhere is this more pronounced than within divisions of continuing and professional education.  

These learners, looking to change or advance their careers, are typically enrolling in non-credit and short-cycle programs designed to help them grow their skills and employability. But serving them requires more than just keeping the help desk open until 9pm or offering the occasional weekend course. 

To truly serve the modern working professional, non-traditional divisions at universities must focus on delivering a transformational student experience that not only keeps student satisfied in the short term, but actually encourages them to continue returning to the institution over the course of their career to keep advancing and learning. 

After all, the modern workforce is characterized by one major thing: a critical need for ongoing, continuous learning. 

So, here are six steps CE leaders can take to ensure their university is designed to attract and retain non-traditional students: 

1. Understand Your Target Market

The term “non-traditional” covers an incredibly broad and diverse array of students. After all, it effectively means “anyone who’s not 18-22 years old, and enrolled full-time.” (The NCES has a more specific definition if you’re interested)  

So if you want to be successful in serving them, you need to define your particular niche. Professional and continuing education leaders should be collecting information on the students coming through their doors to understand their interests, their purchase intent, and their academic, financial and communication history. This way you can more clearly understand who you’re actually serving, and begin adjusting program offerings, marketing messaging and more to suit that audience better. 

2. Know Your Differentiator 

Higher education is like any business in that institutions need to know their “special sauce” that sets them apart, and this is especially important for non-traditional divisions who have a much wider set of competitors facing them. 

You can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to attract non-traditional students; you need to differentiate your division with innovative approaches to teaching, administration and marketing. After all, if your unit doesn’t specifically explain to a non-traditional learner what sets you apart from the crowd, you’ll get lost in it. 

3. Focus on Customer Service

Customer service is absolutely essential to serving a modern learner. Students’ expectations aren’t set by any previous engagements with postsecondary institutions (be it their alma mater or another training engagement). They’re set by interactions with companies like Amazon and Uber. They expect the same service from their higher education institution as they do from eCommerce leaders. 

Customer service encompasses a broad array of issues, from providing programming responsive to student and labor market needs to delivering personalized communication to students to offering them self-service administrative capabilities. 

Without mirroring the experience of eCommerce leaders, you’ll fall short in meeting the expectations of working adults. 

4. Create Innovative Programming and Credentialing Options

Degrees will always retain value as a proxy for general competency, but for an adult looking to advance or transition their career it’s critical to be able to show an ongoing commitment to their professional development. From a university leader’s standpoint, this means more investment in short-cycle skill development programs designed to help people advance or transition their careers. 

It’s essential to be responsive to shifting labor market needs and to be able to get new offerings approved and launched in time to get people the programming and appropriate credentials (certificates and certifications) they need to communicate those skills. A two-year approval process won’t cut it in the professional and continuing education space. 

5. Tailor Your Support to Non-Traditional Students

Climbing walls, gourmet cafeterias and tailgates are what universities tend to hang their hats on as the central features of a great student experience. While CE students might appreciate access to gym facilities, or a cafeteria that stays open late so they can grab a quick dinner before their night class, these features alone aren’t going to resonate as reasons to register to persist for non-traditional, continuing education students. 

If you want to serve this audience, you need to offer tailored services and support features designed to address their needs. It’s essential to create a personalized and individualized strategy that incorporates elements like exam proctoring, counselling, career support and more that’s designed primarily with the non-traditional learner in mind. 

6. Run Like a Business

As you can see from the above five points, today’s non-traditional, adult learners are demanding more from their CE experience than ever before. Unfortunately, in trying to meet all these heightened needs, the burden on staff is becoming crushing. After all, scrambling behind the scenes to make a highly-manual process look automated takes a huge amount of effort, and is unfortunately both thankless and error-prone. 

To meet these heightened demands, university leaders need to find ways to automate processes and offer self-service capabilities where possible. This way, students can drive the majority of their experience in the way they expect and staff time and effort is freed up to focus on truly high-value, difference-making work. 

Where Do You Go From Here? 

The work involved with transforming a professional and continuing education division from an also-ran into a true leader is significant, requiring leaders first and foremost to begin thinking through what the true differentiating strengths of their divisions are and then finding partners to help patch the gaps. 

The first step, however, is to truly understand the experience a modern CE student expects to receive from their university and to adjust the division to meet those needs. 

Want to learn more about delivering a student experience that will attract and retain non-traditional students for a lifetime?  

Read our digital eBook and explore this topic in greater detail. This curated set of EvoLLLution articles and interviews provides fresh insights about student experience and the actions you can take to ensure that your university is geared to deliver an exceptional one.


Student Lifecycle Management Student Experience Enrollment Growth

Last updated: November 1, 2020


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