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The Non-traditional Student Advantage Part 3: Know Your Competition


If you’ve been following this series on non-traditional students, or paying attention to the shifting student landscape at all, then one thing’s clear: non-traditional students are a valuable growth market. And your competition knows it.

This is part 3 in our 5-part blog series on reaching and enrolling non-traditional students. Links to part 1 and part 2.

Yes, non-traditional students demand more than traditional students. They need flexible schedules, targeted certificates, different student service support, and a strong return on their investment. And institutions are (finally) responding. Is yours?

Five years ago, when we published “Quality. Cost. Convenience. How academic leaders are competing for today’s non-traditional students.” – an e-book available for free to Intead Plus members – there was a lot of speculation about MOOCs (massive open online courses). Would they eat into the non-traditional piece of the pie?

While it’s true that student interest in MOOCs soared during Covid, the actual threat they pose to degree programs is, well, not much.

I love the blend of data, environmental scans, case studies, and basic recommendations that are interwoven in each section. This ebook is excellent for institutions that seek to fine-tune their non-traditional services or begin the process of addressing their needs. It covers the many daunting challenges that universities face when focusing on this student segment. ~ Mary Marquez Bell, retired Vice President for Enrollment Services, SUNY Old Westbury

From what we’ve seen, MOOC students are mostly filling leisure time with these types of programs (rather than pausing other academic pursuits). Typically, MOOC students only engage in the coursework a few hours a week. They really aren’t reaping any financial gains from having taken these courses, either. And, in the end, most are pleasantly surprised they actually learned something. So that’s good – for the student and you!

The more urgent conversation has shifted to involve certificates and credentials, for-profit online colleges and universities, and extension programs. Read on for what you need to know.

First, credential programs

Maybe you caught our recent post “The ROI of Stackable Credentials .” If not, we’ll sum it up in two short sentences: Non-traditional students want fast-track career growth. Give them credentials.

The longer summation is non-traditional students really need to see the value in their academic pursuits, whatever they may be. This is no surprise to you. How often are your conversations with prospective students jumping straight from hello to tuition and career outcomes? We know. We are having those same conversations.

A recent RAND report looking at stackable credentials offers good news for students and institutions. The report looked at three fields including health care, manufacturing and engineering technology, and information technology. Researchers learned exactly what we all hoped they would – that credentials lead to higher long-term earnings. And students who went on to earn a degree saw even higher earnings. You got that, right? In other words, shorter-term credential programs could lead to longer term degree-seeking students.

This is validation for universities to take certificates more seriously. Selling certificates won’t cannibalize your 2- and 4-year programs. The bigger risk is not developing this product. Because if you don’t, your competition will is. It’s time to adapt.

About for-profit online colleges and universities

For-profit institutions have fostered their fair share of controversy since they began to grow in popularity. And the controversy keeps coming, but the businesses seem to be weathering the storm overall.

Why? Because many of them provide accredited degrees to students at affordable rates and in flexible formats. Key factors for non-traditional students who often want affordable programs that give them quick, flexible access to a degree that produces skills attractive to employers.

You’ve likely heard about the University of Idaho’s recent purchase of the University of Phoenix. A big deal. And highly controversial/questionable. But the bottom line is the university saw the move as a profitable way to combat the looming enrollment cliff. We’re not judging. Well, maybe we are a little.


As a group, for-profit colleges and universities have adapted more quickly to industry trends and workforce needs than their nonprofit counterparts. However, what these institutions often (but not always) lack is reputation and positive reception by students and employers. A report by Public Agenda states that few for-profit alumni believe that their degree was worth the cost. Half believe their college prioritized profits over students. Scathing findings that these businesses are surely addressing.

Like so many things, for-profit universities vary greatly in quality and ethics. Some are providing a valuable and viable option for non-traditional students (We’re looking at your Full Sail University) and they should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

Extension programs gain ground, too

Extension programs exist to advance knowledge in particular subjects in a short flexible format and typically at a lower cost. They make higher education more available and accessible to students and professionals. Courses are taught at university level and many offer open enrollment. This approach reduces barriers to entry for many students looking to advance their career by gaining specific skills. Overall, extension programs are a good strategy for many institutions demonstrating strong support for non-traditional student needs.

Viva La Competition

The key to staying competitive in this market is to understand your place in it. Revisit your institution’s mission statement and values when considering your approach and target audience within the non-traditional space. What are your long-term goals? What do you already do exceptionally well? What can you truly improve or develop with the least investment of time and resources?

This evaluation goes beyond simply thinking about your online course offerings. You need to figure out the types of students you can best serve, and determine which other institutions are in that space and how you stack up. You can’t be all things to all people. Find your strong suit and build there with a phased approach. And, as always, we’re here to help you make data-informed decisions and create targeted messaging. Be in touch.

Want our non-traditional student recruitment ebook now? Click HERE. Two versions available with 9 case studies. The complete version available to Intead Plus subscribers provides a sample marketing plan, student personas, and more.

Next week in part 4 of our non-traditional student series we explore the strengths and weaknesses of institutions that have always focused on non-traditional learners and those who are newer to this approach. It will be food for thought. See you then.

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