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Sagging Economy Lifts Adult Student Programs

More non-traditional students are returning to IHEs
University Business, Mar 2009

The downward slope of a stock market graph is an image that parallels how quickly traditional college dynamics can submerge and alter a familiar status quo. Tradition is rooted deep in higher education, but these economic times call for emerging change.

Forget the labels and discussions targeting non-traditional student versus incoming freshman. Financial security is the buzz phrase now. Institutions across the country and non-traditional students by the masses both want the same financial fix.

Institutions are looking to strengthen revenue streams to supplement shrinking endowments. Adult students, often cast as “non-traditional,” are searching for means to increase their income levels and secure their jobs. Financial security for both the institution and the student is the opportunity provided by an adult student program.

Even before the recent recession caused economic refugees to seek a haven through higher education, the adult student population has created a stealth migration to high-percentage status among colleges and universities. Did you know that more than 47 percent of the nation's college students-from those in undergraduate to graduate to part-time programs--are over 25 years old— An Adult StudentsTALK research study conducted by Stamats reveals that “economic gain” is one of the primary reasons adults return to college. The current economic jolt will only accelerate the trend.

Many cities that house colleges or universities have seen tremendous economic uncertainty: mass layoffs, the closing of businesses, and the off shoring of jobs that once held communities and their members in solid financial shape. These communities and the colleges and universities within them will tell you that, in most instances, the loss of employment within that community actually created an increase in the number of adults who came back to school to retool themselves for another career.

While adult student programs of the past have been focused within two-year and private for-profit colleges, there is a recent strong showing of public institutions that have partnered with community colleges for baccalaureate degrees and fully developed their own niche-oriented graduate degrees targeted to adult students.

Dr. Charles Bird, vice provost for University Outreach at Ohio University, has found success in both these arenas. “We recently partnered with community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in criminal justice and technical and applied studies,” says Bird. “The number of registrants tripled within the first year, mostly from adult students.” With the graduate degree program, he says, “we focused on a niche that we do very well—health administration. We have recently offered a national, fully-online Masters of Health Administration, and we anticipate great interest in the program.”

Bird acknowledged that a well-run adult student program is a win-win in this economic era. “We provide a service to a deserving market, and we see a positive cash flow within a year of program launch,” he says. “If you understand the adult student demographic and their need for flexibility; have a strong brand; and price your curriculum for the market, you can see growth fairly quickly.”

A troubled economy. Shrinking endowments. Enrollment insecurity. These factors slide down the slope of the stock market graph and can stop in the sand at the bottom, while the adult student market steadfastly climbs the ladder.

As a client consultant at Stamats, Brenda Harms, Ph.D., leads the firm’s adult student marketing initiative. She is a higher education administrator who specializes in the adult student population.

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