From Baby Boomers To Boomerang-ers; Millennials Expect More From The Higher Education Experience

To attract and retain millennials, colleges and universities have made many changes to support the need of millennials to fulfil social and personal goals.


Universities and colleges have for centuries based teaching on some form of the Socratic method. Socrates, however, never foresaw the Internet and the changes it has brought to society, culture and how young people expect to be educated. For universities to address the needs of millennials, they have had to adapt to meet millennials on their own terms, often stepping outside of the traditional classroom environment.

This expectation has led to the advent of online classes, virtual classrooms, massively online open courses and other technology-driven changes to higher learning. Faculty have gone out of their traditional comfort zone to embrace teaching online, and have learned to educate differently with the help of websites, distance learning tools, and other innovations. Students rarely (or in some cases never) have to set foot onto campus, pick up a phone or meet face-to-face with faculty. Some colleges and universities have embraced this new dynamic and have given students the digital experience they are accustomed to and expect.

Digital innovations, of course, are not limited to the classroom experience; universities have become more efficient with smart cards that offer keyless entry, paperless student financial transactions, proof of identity for on and off-campus services, and means of tracking all type of student-institution interactions. Faculty may take attendance by having students swipe or press buttons, and academic advisors may derive insight from “big data” to assess when and how to intervene to support academic progress.

Recruiting, too, has become less face-to-face, and more a social media interaction. While institutions still employ mass mailings, college days and phone calls, the shift has already begun to more digital recruiting methods. Students often like and follow schools their friends like and follow. Virtual tours have taken the place of on-campus tours as the first visit. Advisors set up appointments electronically and now use an app to place and remove holds to influence student behavior.

Previously, schools joined device-provider programs that provided students with a laptop and/or a mobile phone on the first day of school. Initially, students and faculty were not always sure what to do with them, but that changed when the Internet and wireless connectivity became more prevalent, eliminating the physical network connection that kept students in physical spaces. Eventually, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) became the dominant approach, and now students bring myriad devices to campuses and expect the bandwidth to accommodate them. Wi-Fi is no longer limited to select rooms in a set of buildings but is now available throughout communities surrounding some schools.

Indeed, in many respects, learning is no longer tethered to brick and mortar. Mobile apps are available for almost everything students need, and with 24/7 connectivity, faculty and staff can respond much more quickly to students’ needs.

What do millennials want out of an education?

Millennials’ expectations of higher education providers have evolved markedly from those of their baby boomer parents or grandparents. While boomers viewed college as a step on the path to achieving 'the American Dream,' millennials anticipate that institutions offering post-secondary education will 'meet me where I am to prepare for a rapidly changing and uncertain world.' Rather than seeing education as a path to a defined goal, they value the 'experience' and evaluate it frequently in real time. If their experience is below expectations, they move on.

To attract and retain millennials, colleges and universities have made many changes to support the need of millennials to fulfill social and personal goals. Millennial students value experiences over lectures, and new methods have evolved to meet this demand, including:

  • Adaptive Learning in which learning goals replace grades and stringent timelines; learning becomes more fluid, can take place 24/7, and do-overs are permitted;
  • Flipped Classrooms in which students are exposed to materials via media, followed by interaction with teams of students and instructors who validate and expand the lessons;
  • Unconventional Methods, e.g., guest lectures, group activities, workshops, students assigned to lead discussions, hands-on activities;
  • Real-Life Learning, including internships, fellowships, research assistantships, experiential education, community service and the like.

Millennials will also respond more to the acknowledgement of accomplishments, including:

  • Credit for Experience, including transfer credit, test credit, advanced credit, military experience credit, life experience credit;
  • Progress Reports similar to what previously were known as grades;
  • Continuous Feedback similar to the 5-star evaluation you assign to your Uber experience.

Millennials also place more emphasis on mastery of a subject and shorter milestones. These may take the form of:

  • Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that provide the customized approach preferred by millennials;
  • Mini Degrees, including badges, award certificates, associate degrees, and tracks to provide the immediate gratification desired by millennials.

To create a rewarding educational experience for millennials, education leaders must first understand the behavior and attitudes of the current generation, leverage technology to its limits, and blend technology with innovative learning approaches that meet the needs of today’s student.

Big Data and Analytics

Students are leaving an electronic trail. Analytics based on this trove of information can address questions such as:

1. Are students in adaptive learning settings taking more or less time to achieve learning objectives? If less, classes might be condensed.

2. Are flipped classrooms resulting in greater student and faculty satisfaction? Ratings and evaluations are indicators of the effectiveness of this approach.

3. Are students continuing their education by receiving badges, certificates and/or associate degrees early in their careers? Results may influence the institution’s approach to retention and its focus on 'life-long learning.'

4. Did graduates and former students invited to 'Meet the Alumni Day' engage in mentorships afterwards? Did students in attendance eventually receive help getting jobs or starting businesses from alumni?

Social Customer Relationship Management (SCRM)

SCRM seeks to track, analyze and encourage student engagement and success. SCRM campaigns need to be carefully prepared and individualized to each student. Too much communication can interrupt or irritate the recipient; too little can result in loss of engagement. As a recruit moves through the student lifecycle to become a graduate and ultimately a 'life-long learner,' interactions need to adapt. Interactions with recruiters will need to evolve into interactions with 'retainers' (i.e., advisors whose objective is to move the student along through the life cycle to a successful outcome). Academic Advisors have a lot to handle in meeting academic needs, so SCRM initiatives need to be deployed to keep the student actively engaged in curricular and co-curricular activities.

Retainers can work at keeping the student engaged by:

  • Sending links of interest to the student;
  • Sending alerts and reminders about activities of interest;
  • Offering congratulations on milestones;
  • Extending invitations to events (online and at physical locations).

Automation of Things

Much like the Internet of Things, millennials expect all things to be automated and accessible through a well-designed mobile application. This app integrates the student experience into the student’s life. Examples include features that allow the student to:

  • View multiple potential class schedules, then register based on time frames available and priorities the student sets to create the best fit;
  • View the entire academic calendar and blend it with calendars for work, events, friends and the like;
  • Apply for financial aid and, upon receipt, set up automatic payments to handle expenses.

Security is paramount. A breach of trust will crumble the relationship with the student. Students will tell their friends, and their friends will tell their friends. It is hard to recover from a security event.

Universities are slowly overcoming their centuries-old resistance to change, embracing digital learning innovations and virtual classrooms – as well as digital administration – to better serve a younger generation that has come to expect to have access to everything immediately, and preferably in the form of an all-encompassing smartphone app. Millennial students are embracing change in the spirit of Socrates, and constantly questioning the very foundation of how – and why – education is delivered. It is up to educational institutions now to respond.


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