cohort model

Why higher ed needs to eradicate the university term

When it comes to the cohort model structure, it’s time to face the music.

What do education and music have in common? Rhythm.

We gain our first introduction to the rhythms of education in kindergarten. The natural order of fall starts, winter breaks, spring starts, and summers off provide the mile markers that guide us through the year and organize our memories. The seasonal cadence of education follows us throughout our lives as sure as the seasonality embedded in nature.

Then there is the rolling start cohort model of higher ed.

The “Idealistic” Cohort Model

Largely a product of the for-profit space, this cohort model seemingly offers some major business advantages. The idea is simple—you acquire a ton of inquiries, and as soon as those inquiries convert to reach a certain number of applicants, you enroll those students right away. This model definitely lessens the lag time between the decision to enroll and starting classes, and institutions were quick to adopt it in the name of growing enrollments.

In an idealistic world, the cohort model is a beautiful model. You start a group of students together, and those students move on to share the same experience throughout their time at the institution. They become coaches and support systems for one another—as one of them struggles to progress or work through challenges, their peers rally like white blood cells around them.

Conceptually this model is great, and with small, contained programs—particularly at the graduate level—it still works really well.

Yet many institutions find themselves unable to generate the inquiry volume to maintain this model.

(Next page: A better term model)

Without a marketing budget comparable to those institutions that dominated the for-profit space for years, institutions cannot convert inquiries into enrolled students at a sustainable scale or speed. So by adopting this model, institutions both turn their backs on the rhythms of education and create a number of challenges for both their organizations and for students.

Administrative Barriers with the Cohort Model

Let’s start with the institution. From an administrative standpoint, the cohort model often functions at the expense of those charged with packaging financial aid and finding the logistical framework for non-term, rolling start dates.

Add to that the challenge of finding faculty to both instruct the students and prepare the courses, often with very little lead time.

Lastly, the conversion from admitted to start of a cohort model is often much greater than with a fixed start or term model, as the wait period between when a student enrolls and when the cohort finally fills up often creates a wide gap between a student’s decision to study and the active pursuit of their degree.

Student Barriers with the Cohort Model

On the student side, the cohort model often creates many barriers to success and satisfaction. For an undergraduate student–where a large majority of the adult learner population now resides–the journey to a degree is, at best, three and a half years, and likely much more than that.

Since today’s students are entering into their education from wildly different circumstances, a lot can happen to delay or derail the pursuit of their degree in that amount of time. Thus, the expectation that you can keep a cohort together throughout the entire duration is quite unrealistic, and a cohort of 10-12 students is going to feel the loss of any number of students acutely. The class sizes become no longer engaging for students or faculty, and student satisfaction dramatically decreases.

Thus, the cohort model actually ends up contributing to attrition rather than supporting retention.

A Better Model

The ultimate goal in today’s higher ed environment is to gain sustainability and scalability as an institution while creating the conditions for student satisfaction and success. This is why the fixed start, carousel model works far better for both the institution and the student.

Adopting this model  allows institutions to gain top dollar for every student they enroll while mitigating potential administrative and retention issues. That being said, no model is ever perfect.

But if you’re looking to figure out the best solution to grow enrollments and provide a great student experience, you’re likely better off falling into the rhythm than dancing to the tune of the cohort model.

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