Why adapting to changing demographics is a matter of survival; and how colleges and universities can do it.

survival-question-stormIncreased competition, reduced public funding, demand for non-traditional delivery models, and increased regulatory pressure around student outcomes are forcing institutions to ask fundamental questions about the effectiveness of their current strategies and offerings for engaging today’s students and helping them succeed. Questions such as:

1. Who is the typical student today?

Is it the 18-year-old right out of high school who moves away from home for the first time and has never known a world without the Internet? Is it the older student who lives off-campus and works part-time to pay tuition? Or is it the mid-career parent who works full time and needs a more flexible way to gain new skills or academic credit for real-world experience and competencies?

For more institutions, it’s all of the above.

Today’s “typical students” represent a diverse demographic across economic, cultural, and generational lines. They need to be engaged on their own terms, with multiple choices and pathways for achieving specific academic and professional goals.

They also live in the digital age. With the proliferation of online programs and options, they are one click away from transferring to new institutions or taking online courses from multiple providers. For institutions to maintain or increase enrollments, it will take more than offering more online classes or provisioning tablets, smartphones, and other personal devices for students. It will take a fundamental change in how schools go about engaging students and establishing loyalty.

The retail industry faced a similar seismic shift with consumers. We all know what happened to Blockbuster and Sears: Netflix and Amazon.com happened. Attempts at launching online versions of their brick-and-mortar stores turned out to be too little too late. In contrast, forward-thinking big-box retailers such as Staples and Toys R Us saw an opportunity to engage customers on a deeper level through the digital experience, treating physical locations as fulfillment centers for online orders and enabling in-store customers to ship purchases home. According to the Urban Land Institute, even Millennials prefer to shop in-store and are more likely to visit retail locations that align the physical and virtual shopping experience.

Higher education is experiencing a similar phenomenon.

(Next page: How can institutions adapt?)