The Ever-Changing Dynamics of Higher Education

The Ever-Changing Dynamics of Higher Education

Understanding and Engaging Today’s Post-Traditional and Online Learners


In 2011, on the heels of the Great Recession, Wiley Education Services and Aslanian Market Research (AMR), a division of EducationDynamics, recognized not only the imminent decline in higher education enrollment, but the potential for online education to be the industry’s saving grace. What followed was the first edition of Online College Students, a report that gathered survey responses from online college students with the intent to discover how they were “different from those who typically enroll in campus-based, face-to-face programs.”


The resulting report provided higher education leaders with “the data they require to help recruit, maintain, and graduate online college students from their respective institutions.” The information gathered by the survey and the conclusions drawn by the report were so valuable to higher education leaders that 2020 brings the ninth annual edition of Online College Students.


Over the past decade, as the report’s authors uncovered what matters to online college students, which attributes of a school or program can make or break their enrollment decisions, and—most importantly—just who these students are, a demographic all its own was revealed: The post-traditional student.


Post-traditional students, first identified by John Ebersole, are “students of any age who are not enrolled in full-time study during the day and do not live on or near campus.” While their manner of study, reasons for enrolling, and demographics vary wildly, they have much in common with (and often overlap) the online student body.


So in 2017, AMR conducted a second survey, focused on the post-traditional undergraduate population. Its successor, focused on the post-traditional graduate student population, was published in 2018. 2020 brings the third nationwide post-traditional student report published by AMR. This third report, developed from the responses of post-traditional students surveyed in January and February 2020, “is the culmination of national post-traditional student research investigating the demographic, program, and marketing data and observations on the large majority of all college students who now study in a post-traditional manner—who they are, what they study, how, when, and for what purposes.”


Both Online College Students 2020 and 2020 and Beyond: Attracting and Serving Post-Traditional Students delve deeply into these populations, their behaviors, their motivations, and their demographics, revealing quantifiable information—some expected, some surprising—that will help higher education leaders make student-driven decisions for years to come.


The full reports are available through the Imagine America Foundation in partnership with EducationDynamics.


Today’s Traditional Students Are No Longer So “Traditional”


The Great Recession had an impact on the higher education industry in more ways than one, but in two very important areas in particular. The first was a workforce shift toward highly skilled professions and trades that were more immune to layoffs and shutdowns than typical white-collar work, and the effects of another still reverberate today.


As noted in 2020 and Beyond, “the economic downturn during the latter half of the 2000-2010 decade saw a precipitous decrease in birth rate.” This “birth dearth” from 10–15 years ago created a void in the number of students who will be graduating from high school in the near term. Moreover, the birthrate in the United States never recovered from this downturn—2018 offered the lowest number of births in the United States in more than three decades. Thus, a looming traditional student deficit has been predicted by experts. This situation will significantly limit the number of traditional students (students who study during the day, full-time, and live on or near campus) available to colleges and universities nationwide.”


These students, though fewer in number than their counterparts who came before, are creating immeasurable change in higher education. As digital natives, their expectations of colleges and universities—including how quickly they expect a response to their applications, when they expect to be able to begin their courses, the ability to access course material from smartphones, and so much more—are higher than ever before.


“Post-traditional students demand flexibility, differing formats, shorter courses, and a host of other delivery options,” says 2020 and Beyond. “They are also, like most students, in need of career services, library services, advising and other student services. However, they connect differently to institutions; rather than visiting college fairs, they do their own research and know what they want when they make their initial contact.”


The post-traditional student population makes up the majority of all higher education students, and their numbers will only grow. “Institutions must take note of the post-traditional students’ demands and preferences, as they do, indeed, differ from those of traditional students,” says 2020 and Beyond.


Alongside the rise of the post-traditional student comes the rise of online programs. The two are so closely intertwined that perhaps one cannot exist without the other. As this new wave of students demanded flexibility, quick degree paths, and education that allowed remote access, online education rose to the challenge. As online education grew in maturity and accessibility, post-traditional students’ expectations grew alongside its offerings.


“Given the sustained growth of online programs, competition continues to rise as more institutions launch online offerings,” says Online College Students 2020. “More than 70% of colleges and universities expect to launch one to four new online undergraduate programs over the next three years.”


Meet the Post-Traditional and Online Students


It is important to note that post-traditional students are a different group than non-traditional students. Nontraditional students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, meet at least one (but generally more) of seven characteristics: delayed enrollment into postsecondary education; attends college part-time; works full-time; is financially independent for financial aid purposes; has dependents other than a spouse; is a single parent; or does not have a high school diploma.


37 percent of post-traditional students, on the other hand, enrolled in college immediately after completing high school.


The most typical post-traditional student is a Caucasian woman in her early 30s. She is married or has a partner and has at least one child.


Post-traditional learners choose to study this way not necessarily because they need to, but because they want to. The flexibility that comes along with nontraditional schedules and course delivery formats allows them a lifestyle that traditional on-campus enrollment does not.


Only 17 percent of undergraduate post-traditional students surveyed enrolled in all classroom courses. The largest group, 29 percent, take all their classes online, and the rest enroll in some form of hybrid learning. For graduate students, the tables are turned, with the largest group (24 percent) taking all their courses in the classroom. This group is immediately followed by the 22 percent who take all their classes online.


This is interesting because it’s often assumed that post-traditional graduate students are those returning to school while working. The data, however, suggests that many enrolled in post-traditional graduate courses may be more like career students, perhaps those going into academia.


In both groups, approximately 80 percent of students took at least some of their classes online. It would not be unreasonable to assume these numbers will continue to grow as increased online programming allows increased online enrollment.


Increasingly, “online” isn’t enough, either. Students want to be truly mobile. Online College Students 2020 found that 74 percent of online students either currently use or want to use mobile devices during their programs. They reported using their smartphones and tablets primarily to complete readings and watch videos, and also used them to communicate with their instructors and peers.


“The importance of mobile devices in online learning cannot be overlooked. Today, learners primarily want to complete their readings on mobile devices,” the report says. “However, they will soon want to complete more of their online coursework and class communication in the same way.”


This means shifting the paradigm of degree delivery across fields of study. While students today don’t want traditional course delivery, they do lean heavily toward traditional outcomes. “At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the post-traditional student market is heavily directed toward degree study, as has been evidenced consistently in the past,” says 2020 and Beyond.


At the undergraduate level, 63 percent of post-traditional learners are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs and 33 percent are enrolled in associate degree programs. They also choose fairly traditional majors. Almost half (45 percent) of post-traditional students are studying business, computer science, or information technology. Online students enrolled similarly, with the largest percentages studying business (29 percent of undergraduates and 26 percent of graduate students), and 14 and 11 percent, respectively, studying computers and IT. For online students, however, arts and humanities programs were also heavily represented, accounting for 15 percent of undergraduate and 9 percent of graduate majors.


Altogether, finds 2020 and Beyond, “business and technology-oriented programs comprise more than half of all enrollments among both undergraduate and graduate students. Given current conditions and the nature of how the labor market may change, this will be even more true in the near future—particularly in the technology areas of study. One area to pay attention to, however, may be in the health and medicine arenas where demand for workers may likely grow.”


Meeting the Expectations of Post-Traditional and Online Students


Both reports gathered fascinating information on the motivations and decision-making factors of post-traditional and online students. From what matters to what clearly doesn’t matter, these insights are invaluable to institutions deciding how to move forward in an online, post-traditional world.


Here are five ways to begin meeting the expectations of your students:


  1. React quickly. The majority of post-traditional students enroll at the first institution that admits them. The vast majority of post-traditional students expect to be notified about their admission status between one and 30 days after applying. The largest percentages of both undergraduate and graduate students surveyed said they expected a response within two weeks. For most, their expectations were met. 65 percent of undergrad students and 50 percent of grad students received an answer within two weeks. “While it is extremely important for colleges to respond quickly to post-traditional inquirers who are in the market for further study, it is equally important to review and make admission decisions as quickly as possible—including decisions in regard to financial awards. The local market can be highly competitive. Colleges that respond on a timely basis to inquirers and applicants are more likely to be rewarded with enrollments.”
  2. Be generous with your transfer policies. 52 percent of post-traditional students said that credit acceptance was the most important factor in their college selection. “Post-traditional undergraduate students bring, on average, about 30 prior undergraduate credits to institutions in which they want to transfer. It is very important that receiving institutions recognize and accept as many—if not all—of these credits during the transfer process. Acceptance of prior credits is critical to post-traditional undergraduate students who want to conserve cost and time as they proceed to their completion of an undergraduate degree.”
  3. Choose your program offerings carefully. Wherever the job market goes, the students will follow. More than half of post-traditional students enroll in study in order to increase their salary potential, transition to a new career, or get a promotion. “If income and career/job search were important to post-traditional students in the past, it is even more so today than ever before. Looking ahead, the vast majority of post-traditional students will be seeking new skills and education to prepare themselves for expanded and evolving jobs and careers, particularly in the technology and business fields and also, to some extent, in medical fields.”
  4. Factor in finances. Most post-traditional students (27 percent) return to school because their financial situation changed, and the most important factor for almost half of them was the cost of tuition and fees.
  5. Capitalize on extreme motivation. 32 percent of post-traditional students prioritize multiple start dates throughout the year. More than half (56 percent) of undergrad students started their studies (or expected to at the time of the survey) within four weeks of application. Considering admission often took up to two weeks, this is a quick turnaround. The largest percentage expected to start within five to eight weeks. “When post-traditional students are ready to return to college, they don’t waste much time. Colleges that want to attract them need to adapt their procedures and responses to match.”


It’s a new world for colleges and universities. There are challenges to be overcome, but exponentially more opportunities to be won. The post-traditional and online students dominating today’s market have high expectations of their schools, to be sure, but they make their motivations clear. Listen to what these students are telling you, understand their perspectives, and make decisions for the future based on what’s important to the students you serve.


For full access to Online College Students 2020 and 2020 and Beyond: Attracting and Serving Post-Traditional Students, as well as additional insights from EducationDynamics, visit

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