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Opportunity Knocks

Examining four emerging trends in higher education
University Business, Sep 2010

With President Obama's 2020 challenge and recent research estimates indicating that by 2018 U.S. employers will require 22 million additional workers with degrees, more Americans are - and will be - heading back to school. Those colleges and universities that proactively position themselves to take advantage of this increase in student demand will be at a substantial competitive advantage when it comes to maximizing their benefit from this higher education explosion. But where, exactly, should they position themselves?

During my work as a higher education market research consultant, I've conducted hundreds of studies for clients throughout the country, for schools large and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, online and campus-based. During that time, the four trends described below have emerged as most likely to provide the greatest market growth opportunities.

Americans are living and working longer. Life expectancy has increased and so has the number of older workers. For 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 60.6 percent of adults between the ages of 55-64 were employed and 16.1 percent of adults age 65 and older were working, up from 57.7 percent of adults ages 55-64 and 11.9 percent of adults age 65 and older ten years earlier.

In terms of the distribution of degrees across this segment of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults age 55+ have the lowest percentage of associate's and bachelor's degrees. To advance in a current job, transition into a new career, or just remain competitive in the modern job market, many adults 55 years of age and older will need higher education. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that older adults may be seeking higher education for non-career related reasons as well. Some may be seeking to complete a degree they started years earlier to achieve a personal goal or for their own edification and enjoyment.

Four trends are likely to provide the greatest market growth opportunities.

Positioning: To best attract older adults, colleges and universities should clearly and consistently communicate that they are aware of and sensitive to older students' needs, and should offer online and hybrid options in addition to classroom-based programs, as well as flexible scheduling and shorter term and program lengths.

In several recent client studies, a surprising trend surfaced. A significant portion of the local population of recent adult learners fell within the 25-29 year old age range - a departure from the stereotypical profile of an adult student as someone in their mid-30s. In fact, in one study, half of the recent learners were between 25-29 years of age. This tells us that younger adults are realizing earlier than they historically have that they need more skills and credentials if they are to have a sustainable career.

Positioning: In addition to offering a wide variety of scheduling and format options, schools will be best served by encouraging young adults to pursue a degree or finish a program they once started by reinforcing the statistical reality that they need to get an education now so that they can enjoy long-term career success in the future.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows enrollment in graduate education consistently increasing both in real attendance and projected enrollment. However, while interest in graduate education is already expected to grow, there may be an even more dramatic increase as workers discover that to be most competitive they will need more than an undergraduate degree, which is nearly the “new normal.” As we become more educated as a nation and as our jobs require it, advanced education will be necessary to remain viable and skilled in the fields we enter and progress in.

Positioning: Schools with graduate programs should promote the availability of their offerings, as well as their value in the changing landscape. For motivated prospective students, achieving graduate education sooner rather than later will better position them for promotions and career transitions. Additionally, colleges and universities that are able to establish and/or grow their post- baccalaureate education offerings now will be poised to take advantage of the future influx of graduate students that will be entering the market in the years to come.

Finances can often be the hurdle standing in the way of prospective students getting the higher education they desire. However, many have a resource that they are unaware of: employer-provided tuition reimbursement benefits. While the current state of the economy might lead some to believe that this is a declining benefit, a recent EducationDynamics study of 100 blue chip New York-area firms found that more than 80 percent were still offering funding for classes. About 90 percent of the employers with tuition assistance programs reported covering undergraduate courses and programs and 97 percent offered benefits toward graduate courses and programs.

Positioning: Prudent colleges and universities will identify companies in their communities that have tuition reimbursement benefits and seek strategic partnerships to provide higher education opportunities to their employees. In addition to working directly with companies with tuition assistance programs, schools should reach out to employees to let them know that this funding may be available to them.

The current climate in higher education can be a win-win for students and schools alike. Students can gain the education they need to create secure and successful careers, and colleges and universities can reposition themselves to most effectively serve them. After all, competition is a part of our national identity and just as students are flocking to classrooms across the country to become more competitive in the workforce, colleges and universities should embrace these four emerging opportunities to become equally competitive in the marketplace.

Carol Aslanian is senior vice president of market research and advisory services at EducationDynamics and has been conducting higher education market research for more than 30 years.

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