3 higher ed program design strategies to serve career changers and advancers


3 higher ed program design strategies to serve career changers and advancers

Plus case studies in designing programs to attract this audience


In our most recent survey of 2,000-plus adult learners, 54% of respondents said they want to further their education to “advance in [their] career” or “change careers.” Especially as prospective adult learners reevaluate their professional, financial, and personal circumstances during COVID-19, institutions should pay careful attention to how they can update their programs to appeal to students seeking a career shift.

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Here are three strategies your school can use when refreshing your programs (or designing new programs) to appeal to career advancers and changers.

1. Offer programs part-time and online

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many programs made the sudden shift to distance learning. And although the emergency remote instruction most schools adopted during the pandemic is, understandably, not to the same standard as their regular online programs, this shift to online programming demonstrates that most programs can be thoughtfully adapted to an online or hybrid format.

In fact, 46% of the adult learners our Adult Learner Recruitment team surveyed in June said they are more likely to consider online programs as a result of experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our survey, students who identify as female, students who live in the west and southwest, and students 26 and over were especially likely to express interest in online programs.


of surveyed adult learners say they are more likely to consider online programs as a result of experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s no surprise that adult learners value flexible delivery and part-time options when considering programs. But for adult learners switching careers, especially those who plan to balance work and family obligations with school, the option to complete a course online can make or break their decision to enroll. Here’s how the University of Pennsylvania tailors their online Master of Computer and Information Technology program to students changing careers.

Case study: The University of Pennsylvania

Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT)
  • Total program size: 1,162 students
  • New starts each year: 300 - 400 students
  • Audience: Career starters, advancers, and switchers ages 20 - 70

Students who attend the Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT) program complete all coursework asynchronously via Coursera with optional synchronous office hours with professors and teaching assistants. This program is designed for adult learners, with no background in computer science, who are interested in gaining new skills for their current careers or changing careers all together.

Additionally, students can take between one and four courses each semester with part-time students taking one to two courses each semester. Program length varies between one and a half to seven years depending on student’s availability and workload, with the ability to pause the program for a semester or more if needed.

Options to increase and decrease course loads, the ability to start and stop the program as needed, and openness to students from all academic backgrounds will best support career changers and advancers with evolving needs and circumstances.

2. Offer ample hands-on, experiential learning opportunities

For adult learners switching careers, experience in their new field is essential. Hands-on, experiential learning opportunities should be the foundation of programs designed for adult learners who seek to make a career change. Programs can include experiential components within curricula through project-based coursework with local employers or via specific experiential learning courses, such as a practicum or capstone.

Case study: George Mason University

Students who complete the online Master of Professional Studies in Applied Industrial and Organizational Psychology at George Mason University complete two practicums where students complete individual projects at their current place of work. By offering students the option to complete experiential learning components within their current place of work, adult learners switching or advancing careers can gain real-world experience while building connections within their current roles.

3. Recognize as much credit as possible to accelerate students’ time to completion

In the same survey, adult learners cite program length and time to completion among the most important criteria they consider when making an enrollment decision. To minimize program length for adult learners switching careers, program leaders should implement pathways to recognize as much credit as possible.

Programs can recognize credits from either past academic experience or employment experience, such as trainings or certifications a prospective student has completed. While pathways may most directly benefit career advancers, career changers will be able to gain credit for “T-shaped professionals” career-adjacent skills such as project management and people management.

Case study: The University of Memphis

Students who enroll at the University of Memphis meet with an academic advisor who helps them determine if experiential learning credits can be transferred to their degree or certificate program. New students to the program can transfer between one and 27 credits per pre-assessed career experience.

For experiences or trainings not pre-assessed, students can complete an experiential learning credit portfolio to detail their past experiences with support documents to maximize potential transfer credits.

To learn more about Competency-Based Education (CBE) and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and how to apply them to your programs, see our CBE and PLA Playbook: Tools for Alternative Credit Programs report.

Implementing these three strategies will help your programs become more attractive to students who seek to change or advance in their careers. But the increased flexibility, speed, and affordability these strategies provide can help make your programs a destination for all adult learners, regardless of their motivations for going back to school.

Want more insights on expanding the reach of your adult-serving programs?

View our on demand webinar about designing graduate and online programs for enrollment growth.

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