Accenture has identified new opportunities for higher education institutions to differentiate offerings and more effectively serve changing student expectations and evolving employer needs.
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Six segments: U.S. learners aged 16 to 65+ (Graphic: Business Wire)
A new study, Serving all students: A survey of learner mindsets, reviews how the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a number of changes that were already underway in higher education, such as a reduced pool of “traditional” students, an increasing societal need for lifelong credentialing and skilling and the rise of alternative education providers. These factors prompted the research to better identify and deepen understanding of distinctive segments of the “student” population to help colleges, universities and professional certification programs tailor their efforts to improve student satisfaction, equity, experiences and outcomes.
“Education institutions, now more than ever, are looking to evolve how they serve existing students as well as how they adapt to serve new student segments,” said Samantha Fisher, managing director of Accenture’s education practice. “Learning and acquiring new skills across a workers’ career is increasingly essential for employees and organizations to flourish, and the challenge demands a deeper understanding of learning mindsets.”
Finding 1: A new way to segment learners
The survey of 6,500+ post-secondary learners included current and prospective students age 16 and up, seeking either an academic degree or professional certification from any type of post-secondary education provider. Analysis of survey results revealed six distinct segments of learners, clustered based on learning mindsets, goals and emotions rather than demographic factors or type of institution.
“Campus Enthusiasts” representing 16% of respondents, are academically-oriented young people, seeking an immersive and exploratory college experience. They are generally full-time students, with social and career extracurriculars, and most will be seeking their first professional job upon degree completion.
“Wayfinding Intellectuals” representing 7% of respondents, are working toward their first degree, highly driven by intellectual curiosity, and often interested in staying within academia. They seek a more traditional learning experience, preferring in-person enrollment and learning.
“Junior Specialists” are the largest cluster, representing 31% of respondents. They are motivated by real-life application of coursework, internships and building networks to enter an identified field upon graduation. Most are enrolled or plan to enroll in a four-year institution fulltime and committed to pursuing a degree in a professional field, such as healthcare or business. They tend to be relatively more reliant on loans and scholarships, have lower income, and be less interested in school culture and social opportunities.
“Evolving Professionals” representing 23% of respondents, have higher incomes and more work experience. Driven by intellectual curiosity, they are looking to expand their interests and career options rather than developing specific skills tied to their employer. Many are studying technology or business. A majority are pursuing a traditional degree, but a sizable minority are enrolled in or intend to enroll in a certificate program. They tend to be older than the previous three segments, and many have started families.
“Mid-Career Climbers” representing 14% of respondents, seek to advance their careers through special credentials closely tied to their current or a future employer. They tend to work fulltime, and place a premium on program flexibility (e.g., full online or online hybrids), and are the most likely group to enroll in certificate programs and institutions outside of colleges and universities.
“Trajectory Transformers” representing 9% of respondents, are striving to achieve career advancements by changing roles or industries by obtaining specific skillsets in a short amount of time. They focus heavily on value and potential outcomes, are the oldest group with the most work experience and are among the most price-sensitive learners. Many are or will be first-generation college students.
Finding 2: Alignments in satisfaction within and across segments
Students across the diverse segments were relatively satisfied with how institutions describe their offerings and help students navigate program offerings and other academic advising. Satisfaction was lowest across all segments with non-academic services, such as mental health and wellness, disability services, and financial counseling.
The survey found every segment placed high priority on greater flexibility around coursework modality (onsite, online, and hybrid approaches).
Finding 3: Universal demand for high quality digital experience
Overall, 96% of respondents said a high-quality digital experience is important to their educational satisfaction, up from 85% in a similar survey from 2017. The priority on digital experience was generally consistent across segments, though all segments revealed a substantial mix of students wanting in-person versus online options for services and learning.
Delivery preferences for many key activities cut across segments. Majorities in all segments tended to favor in-person delivery for deeply relevant experiences such as graduation, internships and clubs/organizations, and to generally favor online delivery for most administrative services.
“Post-secondary education institutions need to be able to deliver nearly all services well across modalities, but it is about much more than just going digital” Fisher added. “The focus should be on deepening engagement and relationships with students and enhancing learning experiences, including by more thoughtfully addressing distinct needs and preferences of widely varying learners.”
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About the Research
The survey included 6,536 U.S. respondents in July 2021, all currently enrolled or imminently likely to enroll in an educational credential program, including but not limited to colleges and universities. From the data set, a Partition Around Medoids (PAM) methodology was used to define clusters, resulting in the six distinct learner segments.
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