To maintain or increase enrollment amid overall national declines, a new report by the Parthenon Group tells colleges to go beyond students’ demographics and focus on their motivations.
Institutions recruit on the assumption that so-called traditional students (age 18 to 24) go to college to discover themselves and that adult learners (“nontraditional” students) have more career-oriented goals, says Haven Ladd, a partner at Parthenon, a consulting firm. He and another partner, Seth Reynolds, wrote the report, “The Differentiated University,” with Jeffrey J. Selingo, a contributing editor at The Chronicle.
Better understanding students’ motives will help colleges attract certain segments of the population, with offerings—“value propositions"—that resonate with those groups, says Mr. Ladd. Such offerings, he says, will enable colleges to not only recruit students more effectively but also retain them.
Students’ age and enrollment status (part time versus full time) are not sufficient indicators of what they hope to achieve with a college degree, the report argues. To examine the student market more deeply, Parthenon surveyed 3,200 prospective and current college students across different age groups. Analyzing the results, the firm identified six major segments of the student market, the first three on the younger side and the latter three generally older.
Aspiring Academics (24 percent of the overall market) have strong academic records—most graduated in the top 5 percent of their high-school class—and come from higher-income families. Because they plan to attend graduate school, they choose a college based on the availability of a specific major, as well as high-quality research professors. They are more interested than the average student in research opportunities.
Career Starters (18 percent) also have strong academic backgrounds, and they strive to break into a specific career as quickly as possible, seeing college as a steppingstone. Because college is a means to an end, they care more about cost than do their counterparts, as well as job-placement rates and career services. These students are less interested in liberal-arts degrees.
Coming-of-Age Students (11 percent) see college as a chance to test the waters before choosing a life path, tending to take a year or two before declaring a major. Less academically driven than the previous two groups, they choose a college based in part on sports teams and social life. This group prefers a full residential experience and values an institution with supportive campus life and a broad set of academic programs, knowing that college will provide them with direction.
Career Accelerators (21 percent) are typically working adults who want to obtain a degree to climb the ladder at their current company or within their industry. They are likely to get tuition reimbursement from their employers, and because of their work schedules, they look to enroll part time. With some past college experience, they value flexible delivery methods like online and self-paced courses, as well as using prior job and learning experience to get academic credit. The ability to transfer academic credit also influences their college choice.
Industry Switchers (18 percent), similar to Career Accelerators, are intent on changing careers, and generally have more-difficult financial situations or are unemployed. Because they seek a job above all else, they highly value a college’s connections to labor markets, as well as career-counseling services and job-placement rates. They are more influenced by both cost and the availability of a specific major than any other group, and they also care about a convenient location and flexible schedules, preferring online or hybrid courses.
Academic Wanderers (8 percent) are like Coming-of-Age Students in searching for a focus they hope college will help give them. They may have some prior college experience, but they are more likely to be unemployed or have lower incomes than their nontraditional-student counterparts, making them more cost-conscious. With no defined career path while enrolled and an unfocused course selection, this segment tends to be unsatisfied with college and least likely to believe they will complete their degree program.
Students’ motivations to earn a college degree sometimes align across segments, the report says. For example, Career Starters (younger) and Career Accelerators (older) both want to earn a bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible. Based on that finding, says Mr. Ladd, a college could offer an accelerated bachelor’s-degree program, for example, to both groups.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for universities to further refine their value proposition, and to compete with each other on differential terms,” he says. Over time, if competition for different segments escalates, he says, colleges could begin to look more different from one another.
Correction (5/19/2014, 10 a.m.): This post originally included incorrect labels for two of the groups. The first group listed is Aspiring Academics, not Young Academics; and the last is Academic Wanderers, not Adult Wanderers. The text has been corrected.