Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

Why many enrollment leaders struggle with “student-centric” adult learner program design

August 26, 2019

What do strategic enrollment planning and extreme sports have in common? More than you might think, according to Kevin Shriner, an expert on market research and adult learner program design at EAB and a former faculty member and associate dean of institutional research. Kevin has worked with faculty to develop over 200 graduate, online, and undergraduate programs over the course of his career. We sat down with him to discuss the lessons he’s learned about designing successful programs for adult learners.

What’s the most common blind spot that colleges and universities have when it comes to strategic enrollment planning?

Kevin Shriner: I think relatively few schools are incorporating the student perspective into program planning to the extent that they should. Most colleges and universities have a general sense that they should do a better job of designing programs to meet the needs of today’s adult learners, but they aren’t always looking critically at the enrollment journey step-by-step, from a student’s perspective. When I worked as an admissions director and student services administrator, I saw firsthand how administrative decisions could create unintended obstacles for students.

I like to think of the student journey as a whitewater rafting trip. Students are excited to start on an unknown journey, and they anticipate some difficult stretches along the way, within reason. It’s the responsibility of the school to ensure that they’re creating a trip that’s challenging, exciting, and that students want to take.

For schools who want to be more student-centric in enrollment planning, but don’t know where to start, what changes are typically most effective?

Kevin: Many colleges or universities can stand to gain a lot by making their online, graduate, certificate, and undergraduate degree completion programs more student-centric. Not only in terms of recruitment and enrollment, but also career outcomes. This can include ensuring that there’s market demand for the program offered and removing unnecessary barriers in the application process. It also needs to encompass modality, scheduling, and curriculum to ensure that adult learners have enrollment options that are convenient for them and fit with their busy lifestyles.

But for most schools, the issue isn’t knowing which changes to make, it’s figuring out how to actually make them. It can be very difficult to get all of the right stakeholders at a college or university to come together to address the underlying issues. Whether they’re redesigning an existing program or launching a new one, to improve and grow programs, institutions often have to make a number of decisions that run counter to their standard operating procedure—which can be tricky.

And what tools can enrollment leaders use to navigate those difficult decisions?

Kevin: They should make sure their choices are grounded in data. I’ve been involved in enrollment planning and program design in several different capacities over the years, as a faculty member and an administrator. When I was an associate dean for institutional research, I always thought of myself as “Switzerland” because I remained an impartial figure throughout the process; it was my job to help others make the best decision possible through objective analyses of the data. There are surprising insights that can turn up in the wealth of data from IPEDS, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and sources like that. And if you take the time to look through the data, it can really help guide you in difficult conversations.

These discussions often involve many stakeholders across campus. What strategies can schools use to make those conversations as productive as possible?

Kevin: Bringing faculty into the program-planning conversation through mediated workshops can be really helpful. For example, I worked with one university on restructuring their online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program to grow enrollment. When I started analyzing the program, I found that their course sequence was completely linear; students had to take all courses in a prescriptive sequence.

By revising the course map with faculty, we were able to create a more flexible course sequence, which enabled the school to offer each course more often and create more opportunities to enroll students with multiple starts throughout the year. During this process, we were also able to talk through prerequisites with faculty and remove unnecessary barriers there.

How did you engage faculty throughout that process?

Kevin: We started by showing them results of market analyses which found that the program’s main competitors were offering multiple starts. That underscored the need for the school to make this change to avoid losing out on enrollments to its competitors.

Another important piece of the puzzle was speaking with faculty about the distinct needs of adult students studying online or off campus. By and large, these students need flexibility in their schedules and probably wouldn’t be taking nine credit hours per semester, instead taking six or eight on a continuous basis, so the courses need to be structured to keep them enrolled semester after semester.

Once everyone was on the same page about the importance of this work, we were able to have an honest conversation about course prerequisites and structure. The faculty ultimately found a few course prerequisites that could be eliminated and found ways to tweak course content to enable more flexibility. Even though we were working with the online program, the school ultimately decided to carry over the changes to improve their on-the-ground program, too. The program redesign process can be highly productive for schools, they just have to approach it the right way.

More Blogs


3 things you need to know about the shifting adult learner market

When it comes to enrolling the "responsible" generation in continuing education programs, learn three higher ed marketing truths…
Adult Education Blog

How Houston Baptist University tripled graduate student enrollment

Despite facing enrollment challenges ranging from incomplete applications to a hurricane, Houston Baptist University has significantly grown their…
Adult Education Blog

The campaign strategy that helped one graduate program see a 4.6x increase in applicants

Learn how direct mail can help your recruitment marketing messages stand out to college students, increase the effectiveness…
Adult Education Blog