Why non-traditional student success is more important than ever

By Jed Diamond

“Student success” has a number of different definitions across the continuing and online education portfolio. Degree completion programs might be evaluated on graduation rates, whereas professional master’s programs track career objectives such as advancement in a chosen field or successful transition to a new industry.

Regardless of how it’s defined, student success has always been central to the mission of COE units. However, three forces are elevating “non-traditional” student persistence on the list of institutional priorities.

#1: Not so non-traditional

Federal reporting requirements and the national conversation about student success reflect the experiences of only a small percentage of students: first-time, full-time, 18-22 year-olds pursuing residential higher education programs immediately after high school.

In reality, 73% of students pursuing higher education have at least one “non-traditional” characteristic that exempts them from reporting requirements. This includes the 37% of all students who are part-time, as well as students aged 25 or older, who constitute 40% of enrollments. This latter group is only growing; the National Center for Education Statistics projects a 21% increase in students aged 25 to 34 and a 16% increase in students aged 35 and older by 2020.

The challenge is that these non-traditional students, who possess at least one of seven non-traditional attributes, are less likely to complete than their traditional peers. Non-traditional students leave school after their first year more than twice as often as traditional students and are 17% less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree in five years.

Seven Characteristics of Non-Traditional Learners

Seven characteristics of non-traditional learners

#2: Competing on completion

Prospective adult learners increasingly view a program’s academic and career outcomes as a point of competitive differentiation. Institutions with strong evidence of student academic and career outcomes can use that data to make a compelling case for enrollment, helping them to stand out in a crowded market.

For example, Capella University’s CapellaResults.org portal highlights learning outcomes, student satisfaction data, and cost information alongside student, faculty, and employer testimonials. For each Capella University program, a prospective student can find financial information including cost to attend and average student debt at graduation, academic outcomes like average time to completion, and career outcomes including graduates' positions and job roles.

Capella University's Award-Winning Learning Outcomes Portal

Capella University's award-winning learning outcomes portal

Sites like Capella University’s are setting a new standard for digital marketing and web presence, demonstrating how clearly defined and communicated outcomes can be used in marketing messages and brand awareness campaigns to effectively “compete on completion.”

#3: Raising the outcomes bar

While federal student success reporting is largely focused on the experience of first-time, full-time students, regional accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education are beginning to raise expectations for reporting and monitoring success among COE student populations. As of July 1, 2015, new federal gainful employment rules took effect, requiring higher education institutions to follow new reporting, disclosure, and certification requirements, and bringing attention to metrics demonstrating students’ return on investment.

So far, however, most institutions aren’t prepared to address these regulations. A University Professional and Continuing Education Association/InsideTrack survey revealed that while 69% of responding COE units track retention and completion rates, 77% do not know the current degree completion rate for non-traditional students.

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