Higher education has served an important role in facilitating national, state, local, and household well-being and prosperity. However, as we scan today’s marketplace and review recent data on student engagement and program completion, it is clear that in the next decade our society could benefit from a genuine and intentional industry-wide focus on serving each learner based on their individual needs, strengths, interests, and goals.
Graduates of higher education are equipped with many favorable outcomes including honed critical-thinking and leadership skills, strong qualitative and quantitative skills, and deep understanding of program areas. And while I may be a product of the one-size-fits-all university experience in prior decades, the current rates reflecting declining enrollment and lackluster program completion should make us question the future of higher education. In fact, what we are experiencing on a national scale has furthered ignited my passion and understanding that today’s students take multiple pathways to continued education, and importantly, that the needs to our global and specialized workforce demand a customized experience with links to work-based learning.
Adding to the complexity, it is not new information that there are more “nontraditional” students today than traditional on-campus and directly-from-high-school learners (NCES, 2018). Importantly, recent data from my university on our nontraditional modern learners shows an increased percentage of students with no previous college experience starting higher education programs in their 20s and 30s; and that the average returning undergraduate student comes with multiple transcripts and 54 credits, along with a history of past organizational trainings, professional certifications, and other non-traditional credit opportunities.
In order to ensure the success of these diverse backgrounds— both academic and professional — the student’s individual experience is a key factor in optimizing the benefits derived from post-secondary education. Utilizing a ‘one-student-at-a-time’ approach has yielded positive results. As a fully online public nonprofit institution, CSU Global’s 1st to 3rd term retention is on average 83%, its trimester-to-trimester retention is on average of 75%, and its 6-year graduation rate of 61% for entering Freshmen are nearly twice the national average for nontraditional students. Importantly, the data are from an overall student population of which 28% are from underserved minorities and 38% are first in their families to attend college. Further, in alignment with its mission, 5 years post-graduation the university’s alumni have salary averages over 30% higher than the national median average.
The level of individual intentionality begins even before a student starts a class. At CSU Global engagement begins with students on a one-on-one basis to understand their past learning, work, and military histories to leverage their individual learning backgrounds towards their future student success. Students can also start classes 12 out of 12 months of the year so that they can be in school on a schedule that works with their work and family demands. Once in classes, the university provides students with opportunities to customize their learning based on their individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Additionally, students are provided with a pay-as-they-go model so that they only pay for classes on a per credit basis when they are taking classes; and they have access to other lower-cost, flexible and alternative learning options.
Such options are helpful for some students, particularly for those with a high degree of self-reliance and who are seeking to reduce the cost of their education. Alternative learning programs include those in which students can self-study and then demonstrate competencies that align with program outcomes. While only one institution in the U.S. has been approved to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs for which students can use Federal Financial Aid, other institutions have created their own low-cost options for those students who wish to utilize them. With a passage rates that exceed 70%, CSU Global’s competency-based learning solutions have proven to be a viable tool for those students seeking to save money, learn in an alternative way, and demonstrate their abilities beyond the university’s more standard models.
With today’s strong economy and the unrelenting pace of change, students now also need to gain new workplace skills while they simultaneously acquire the knowledge and abilities derived from their formal learning. To meet that multitasking demand, CSU Global provides an example through its fully online apprenticeships that are fulfilling student and industry needs with academic and theoretical learning paired with hands-on paying work where students demonstrate their new skills while fulfilling business requirements.
Through one-on-one education and career evaluations, customizable class and program content, and alternative learning options, the ‘one model fits many’ of past decades can evolve to recognize the individual needs of each student. And based on what CSU Global has demonstrated at-scale, advances in technology can facilitate student control over their own learning experiences and optimize their strengths and interests to increase their academic success and ultimately workplace success for today’s modern learners.
While change is never easy, to help ensure relevancy and value of post-secondary education into the future, the industry’s adaptation to providing customizable and individual learning experiences will be important. So as we enter the new decade, I remain hopeful that institutions of all sizes and types will gain the traction they seek for their ongoing viability and importantly, for the benefit of all students across the nation, including those in the new majority as nontraditional students.