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Post-traditional Higher Ed Landscape Requires a New Three-Way Partnership

Spoiler alert: Traditional students are no longer the majority in higher education. Today’s student body is older and busier. Meeting their needs will require increased collaboration between often disparate departments.

According to recent figures, only one-quarter of college attendees are what we would call “traditional students.” Most students in higher education today have full-time jobs, families or other characteristics that make them part of the new “post-traditional” majority who attend school online or part time. While overall postsecondary enrollment drops, online enrollments continue to grow, as do enrollments by students over age 25 and those working full time.

Along with the shifting demographics come shifting student support needs. In order to ensure the success of modern college students, three administrative groups in particular must join forces.

Forge a united front with common goals

So, who can address the post-traditional shift in student support needs?

The head of online, continuing and professional education (OCPE), the chief student affairs officer (CSAO), and the chief information officer (CIO) hold the key to post-traditional student success. Collectively, these three individuals and their organizations possess the understanding of modern student challenges, student support pedagogy and technology required to make college attainment a reality for more working adults.

They must begin by forging a common understanding of what success looks like for today’s college students. For many, the path may not involve a straight shot of four years and accumulation of 120 credits.

As OCPE heads are all too aware, measuring outcomes (such as spring-to-fall retention and four-year graduation rates) often don’t make sense in a post-traditional context, where students attend part time and take breaks when life demands. Moreover, there’s the additional need to account for prior learning, competency-based credits and other factors.

By combining their knowledge and skills, OCPE, student affairs (SA) and IT departments can not only devise success metrics that makes sense for modern learners, but they can also put in place the measurement mechanisms to track and report on them.

Design support around student

Most often, working adult students fail to complete their degrees because of challenges they face in balancing work and family commitments with school. When the going gets rough, education often falls by wayside, unless students are provided proactive support in planning for these inevitable conflicts.

Unfortunately, the student support functions at many institutions aren’t designed to serve busy and remote students. These institutions may not realize that it’s not just about subject matter, it’s also about accessibility. Post-traditional learners need “anytime, anywhere” access to support. Requiring them to physically come to campus or call during business hours typically isn’t going to work.

Understanding these challenges is one thing. Knowing what to do about them and having the tools to act on that knowledge is another. Once again, this is where synergy between OCPE, SA and IT comes into play.

Imagine a student-support infrastructure built by these three groups specifically for post-traditional leaners: It might include web and mobile apps that are accessible anytime and offer educational videos, FAQs, interactive checklists and automated reminders. Another resource might be a library of content on critical issues, such as balancing competing commitments, contingency planning for dependent care, or how to talk your boss or your kids about why you’re in school. A strong infrastructure might also provide the ability to text message support staff in that five-minute window between meetings or to click a button to set an appointment for 9 p.m. — after the kids are asleep.

By pooling their collective know-how, OCPE, SA and IT can ensure all students receive the support they need, when and where they need it.

Abandon the silos

Close collaboration between OCPE, SA and IT is not only essential for providing effective support to today’s students, it is also beneficial to the functioning of these departments, the institution and society as a whole. The cross-pollination of ideas between these three groups can greatly enhance the student experience, improve both student and institutional outcomes, and help build and transition our nation’s workforce to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

This partnership could start with a simple step.

For instance, have members of your IT department shadow frontline student affairs staff for a day to see how they interact with students. Encourage them to engage their counterparts in discussions on ways technology and analytics might enhance the efficacy of student support programs.

Later, have your OCPE and SA staff develop post-traditional student personas and educational journey maps together, forging a collective understanding of their students’ evolving needs. Each group could rotate hosting a brown bag lunch ‘n’ learn for the others. Even that simple act could be enough to form solid relationships and start the creative juices flowing.

The bottom line is that post-traditional students are the majority in higher education, and we must tap the collective wisdom across our institutions to serve them effectively and ensure their success. Providing these students with the support they need requires a keen understanding of their unique challenges, deep pedagogical expertise, and analytic and technical know-how.

For too long, higher education institutions have operated as collections of siloed departments, each with their own area of expertise. It’s time to break down the walls and focus on the student.

OCPE, IT and SA chiefs, lead the way!

Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.

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