Why do more students want flexibility in their studies?

4 min read

Benjamin Boivin

flexibility in studiesWhat is the one thing that most teenagers and young adults have in common in this generation? Well, today's students live in a time where they are enabled to choose from a variety of unique career paths and opportunities, not only at home but abroad also. 

Even the way that prospective students discover colleges has changed - from in-person campus visits and direct mail course catalogs to online search, digital advertising, social media, word of mouth, and email marketing (see State of Student Recruitment USA 2021 Report).

Times have changed and so have students. So, why are so many colleges and universities still marketing to a traditional, one-size-fits-all demographic?

How did the pandemic affect the traditional education system?

Through a global stay-at-home order, the pandemic in 2020 changed up a lot of things for tradition campus-based model. Some schools had students coming to class every other day of the week, some were fully remote, and others spaced out the seating and offered in-class learning throughout most of 2020-2021. While many countries are slowly beginning to return to "normal" and begin in-classroom studies again, many institutions must explore new ways to appeal to students, many of whom may have changed preference since the pandemic, and are seeking new and more flexible ways to earn their degree. Students have discovered first-hand how flexible and online learning can be a great alternative to full-time in class study and want more from their potential institution. Others may have found new opportunities in the job market they do not want to lose by returning to full-time on-campus study. Institutions must also adapt alongside their students in order to succeed. 

Attrition rates are a challenge for many degree awarding institutions.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3% (that’s just one in three students!). The six-year rate is 57.6%. For private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and 65.4% earn a degree in six years.

Why do so many students struggle to graduate in the traditional four-year timeframe?

According to mental health surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of teens say anxiety and depression are a “major problem” among their peers. The pressure of getting into a “dream college,” earning good grades, looking good on social media, and avoiding unrealistic student loan debt threatens the mental health of today’s generation. So, it is understood that offering alternative routes to traditional education can help prevent some of these mental health issues.

Most young people are taught a straight path in life – graduate from high school and join a ‘prestigious’ college or university. The alternates are scary – not finding the ideal job, unemployment and more. These are the stressful factors in a young person’s life who does not want to follow the molded path in front of them. Removing this stigma is something that educational institutions should focus on, because online, part-time or other paths to traditional education are just as valid as going to a full-time course at a college or university.

Think back to Fall 2020. Secondary schools and colleges throughout the world had a straightforward choice: Pivot to an online or hybrid model or risk shutting down the campus for good. The pandemic has changed college and university life in so many ways, and most these students seem to appreciate this shift.

Not only this but today's student also wants flexibility. In Keystone Academic Solutions’ State of Student Recruitment USA 2021, 37 percent of potential students said that they were interested in the flexible or hybrid learning model. We might think that this is the first time a shift has happened, but the idea of modifying the traditional model has been happening in smaller geographic pockets long before “social distancing” and COVID-19.

The EPIC (empower personalize, innovate, collaborate) program at Mountain House High School in California was developed to meet the needs of more students, allowing them to earn the credits required for a high-school diploma while preparing to enter the workforce after graduation. In addition, Ivy League universities are picking up on the community college model by offering part-time study courses at institutions like Cornell University. Their motto is “continue your education, further your career, or simply have fun learning something new.” The concept of learning as you live, rather than graduating in four years has made its way past college campuses. With websites like Coursera, Udemy, edX, and LinkedIn Learning, anyone can add a line to the education section of their resume without even enrolling in a college or university.

While alternative, online, and professional certificates might be the perfect fit for a specific base, the experience of college, even part-time, is highly desirable. On many college websites, visitors can find fast facts highlighting the depth of academic programs, options for student accommodation, and a vast array of clubs and organizations at the university. However, none of these websites provide statistics into part-time and distance learning students, or graduation rates among these students. There are many benefits to part-time and distance learning, and universities and colleges have a responsibility to rethink the traditional learning route and to acknowledge these unique learning models.

Student services like academic advising and career preparation should empower part-time students to feel confident about choosing their pace. When students have the choice for a quality part-time degree, there may even be more enrollments that would otherwise not happen because many potential students cannot afford a full-time degree.

Where to begin?

The conversation should begin when admissions representatives are recruiting at college fairs and high school counseling offices. Discussing gap years, concerns about college, support services, part-time and distance learning should be an important part of the process. The more representatives connect with prospective students on a personal level, the more authentic the college search experience is. Future students want options - they are entrepreneurial, open-minded, authentic, and ready to take on the world. It is up to the enrollment professions to provide them with the right information and tools to make the most important decision of their lives.

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