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Clark Atlanta University students Destiny Rudolph, Delaina Mims, Charles Finch and Jewel Cannon meet on the steps of the Joseph W. Woodruff Library, which is shared among four Atlanta colleges and universities. Higher-education institutions increasingly are pooling their resources to cut costs.
File photo Credit: Jesse Pratt Lopez for The Hechinger Report

Higher education has undergone a sea change.

For most of today’s students, the iconic image of lazy afternoons on the ivy-covered quad couldn’t be further from reality.

A growing portion of traditional-age students are first-generation and low-income students who often lack the support and guidance needed to successfully navigate college.

More working adults are turning to college to complete the postsecondary credentials that have become a necessity in most industries.

Even adults with degrees are seeking further credentials as their career paths evolve.

Competition has exploded and predictions of mergers and closures are starting to become realities at many public universities and regional private colleges.

The next generation of students is already here, and higher education needs to adapt. Here are three important trends driving the way that forward-thinking institutions are adapting their enrollment processes to meet these new educational and career needs.

Related: Wealthy students pushing out low-income students at top public universities, new research shows

Untapped potential: serving the underserved. In the past, most prospective college students were middle-class teenagers looking for a first-time, full-time residential experience. This no longer holds true. Today’s students — most of whom are either first-generation, low-income, minority, working adults or military-connected students — have diverse needs.

“The next generation of students is already here, and higher education needs to adapt.”

With a student population that’s more diverse than ever, savvy colleges are differentiating the types of support they provide — before students even arrive. The goal is to personalize the enrollment process at a massive scale — tailoring it to the varying needs and realities of these groups.

For example, North Carolina HBCU Elizabeth City State University partnered with student success experts at InsideTrack earlier this year to design a new enrollment coaching initiative to help prospective ECSU students identify the academic program that best matches their career and academic goals, navigate the enrollment process, and map out a plan for graduating career ready.

The initiative has already shown strong results, with ECSU reporting a 73% increase in new first-time students.

Increased focus on students’ bottom line. Today’s students want to know how an institution will prepare them for and connect them to their chosen career field, as well as how it will help them stand out from the crowd in a competitive job market.

Students themselves are becoming more selective and are demanding greater transparency when it comes to career outcomes. Driven by increasing scrutiny of higher education’s value, rising tuition and stagnant outcomes, enrollment decisions are increasingly based on likely career outcomes. Consumers are skeptical of higher ed—in part because of their own lived experience. Recent research from Gallup and Strada Education found that over half of U.S. adults regret at least one major educational decision, such as field of study, institutional choice, or degree type.

Related: After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople

To adjust, leading institutions are shifting strategy and operations to focus on career and professional outcomes from the start. Career services — once an ancillary part of student support grafted onto the final terms — are now front and center. Career exploration and development is becoming an integral part of the entire student support process, from point of inquiry through graduation. Integrating career exploration into the enrollment process helps students set realistic expectations and think critically about the program they select and its implications for their career options down the road.

TXT me later. Communication with prospective students is, itself, in a perpetual state of change. Today’s students are famously dependent on their mobile devices and expect anytime, anywhere access to critical information. Couple that with growing student demand for real-time guidance and support and it’s easy to see why colleges are rewiring their enrollment strategies to incorporate intelligent, mobile-first communication.

For example, schools are increasingly incorporating automated nudges designed to prompt students along the desired path, remind them of critical deadlines, point them to relevant information and motivate them to take action. Alongside automated outreach, enrollment teams increasingly offer a range of self-service options and live support for students to access critical information how and when it suits them best, providing greater flexibility and support.

Penn State World Campus is among the leaders in this area. Their “Strong Start” coaching program supports incoming students through one-to-one meetings, text and email exchanges, behavioral nudges, and access to self-guided content.

During the days when nearly every college graduate could expect a good job at the end of their educational journey, colleges differentiated themselves through selectivity, prestige, and rankings. Yet, the same approach today offers diminishing returns; powerful demographic and cultural shifts may explain why.

Colleges and universities are starting to retool their approach to today’s economic realities — just as their own students are doing through lifelong learning. Decades of established practice are catching up with the needs of today’s increasingly diverse and career-driven learners. Is your institution up for it? 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newslette

Robert Hansen is CEO of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

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