UPCEA created the Center for Research and Marketing Strategy (CREMS) in response to the need for benchmarking information and actionable market research among the Association’s nearly 400 colleges and universities. In this feature, CREMS Director Jim Fong will share data that should be particularly relevant and timely for those in professional, continuing, and online education.

What the Numbers Tell Us will be a recurring feature in Unbound. In each issue, Jim Fong will share his perspective on data related to professional, continuing, and online education.


Millennial-Ready Continuing Education

There are many reasons why baccalaureate degree completion rates have been slowly decreasing in the U.S. Some contributing factors are certainly shifting demographics, perception of high tuition costs, and high under- and unemployment rates for new graduates, suggesting a lower return on investment should an adult learner choose to complete or seek out a college degree. Some have also argued that the gap between the skills acquired from a bachelor’s degree and the needs of the workplace may be widening. The presence of MOOCs, coupled with high tuition, may have also caused a devaluing of higher education for working adults. What I see as a stronger factor is an adult education system designed for boomers when millennials (currently age 19 to 25) have quickly become the majority of part-time learners. In fact, 2016 marks the first time that millennials have outnumbered the boomer generation (Pew Research Center, April 2016).

With the generation shift becoming more obvious, the majority of adult or continuing education models remain centered around the boomer generation, requiring one mega-credential for dozens of courses taken in a classroom format with arguably hundreds of skills and concepts learned in the process. While many adult and continuing education systems have adapted to offer online and hybrid options, few have embraced learning milestones achieved in the process of earning the standard 120-credit hour degree.

Most of today’s continuing education models are geared toward the boomer or Generation X populations. However, demographic forecasts show that the percentage of adults age 30 to 44 will grow by 7% by 2024 while the number of 45 to 59 year-olds will decrease by 18% over this period. Baby boomers will be into their 60s and 70s and well into retirement. By 2024, the number of those 60 to 74 years of age will increase by 20%. Many other statistics show geographic differences where the number of high school graduates is also expected to decrease (in metropolitan areas such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit); by contrast, in other areas increases are expected (San Diego, Austin, and Seattle) over the next decade.

Coincidentally, as millennials are coming of age, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows for the third straight year the number of part-time adult students enrolling in college is decreasing. From 2014 to 2015, part-time enrollment declined by 2.1%, with the largest decreases coming from four-year for-profit and private nonprofit institutions.

These major demographic and educational statistics coupled with a perception that higher education is not keeping up with business and industry needs (2U Impact Report 2016, AACU Survey, 2015) suggests that colleges and universities need to rethink or diversify the educational model to meet the needs of the current and future adult learning population. They have started to shift program development, but is it fast enough? While many have jumped on the online degree bandwagon, few have diversified into badging and certificates as alternative forms of credentialing. A recent survey from UPCEA and Pearson shows that many higher education institutions offer certificates, but few offer badges. Those that do offer certificates only offer them on a small scale. This stackable education may be better suited for the millennial generation.

Over the past decade, many colleges and universities succumbed to the necessity of offering online education. Today, many are resistant to offering an alternative form of credential. As millennials age and hold more positions of power (i.e., school boards, political offices, government positions, senior business leaders), it is likely that alternative credentialing will be at least considered for the future. Alternative credential formats such as badges and certificates appear more compatible to millennial preferences and culture. They were more often rewarded for achievements by their parents and other influentials than were previous generations (for example, the oft-maligned “participation award”). Millennials were raised to question authority, and as a result have unbundled many products and services bundled by previous generations. Millennials and Generation Xers have forced business and industry to unbundle music, television, and utilities—typically as a result of their unwillingness to pay for the larger bundles—and may also force the hand of higher education as they have done with online education.

Education is viewed as a lifelong activity by millennials, not a one-time license or validation of competency as a bachelor’s degree may imply. Colleges and universities, and especially faculty do not have to feel threatened about the possibility of alternative credentials. They need to assess their strategies toward current and future students and consider and integrate alternative or stackable credentials into their educational portfolios. One strategy may be to enhance existing degrees through refresher certificates, while another might be to serve millennials disenchanted with the current education system. A recent UPCEA survey of millennials found that those not going on to college or quitting college are more likely to support badges and certificates. The figure below shows that older millennials with only a high school degree are more receptive toward certificates and badging.



In short, our educational model is at least one generation behind and still serving the boomer generation and, at best, Generation X. Those choosing to rebuild around today’s millennials through alternative credentials, multiple modes of delivery, content aligned to the workforce, and effective communications will be better positioned for the next thirty years . . . and while we’re doing this, we’ll need to think about the next post-millennial generation!

Jim Fong has more than twenty years working as a marketer and researcher in the higher education community. Prior to joining UPCEA’s Center for Research and Marketing Strategy, Jim worked as a higher education strategic marketing consultant and researcher for two firms and prior to that was the Director of Marketing, Research and Planning for Penn State Outreach.