Student Expectations: How to Create a Better Educational Experience

Priscila Zigunovas
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Quick take: What do students want? Students from different generations seem to have a lot in common when it comes to expectations regarding their education experience. They share concerns and expectations, and institutions must listen.

A new study by Blackboard and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) explored educational experience through multiple generations. More than a thousand people in the United States were surveyed – and the results may surprise you.

Are educational institutions communicating with the right tools and messages? Do they have the best services in place to care for students? Are their approach and processes in need of a full makeover or simply an update?

Answering these types of questions in order to understand the needs and preferences of the new adult learner was the goal of the study Navigating Generational Shifts: Understanding Today’s Student Demographics, Preferences and Expectations, sponsored by Blackboard and developed in collaboration with UPCEA.1

The study surveyed 1,080 people between the ages of 18-35 in January 2017. The sample was provided by ResearchNow, a leading internet research company.

“The United States is very dependent on the four-year bachelor’s degree or the two-year associate degree,” says Jim Fong, Director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy. “We believed that the upcoming generations have different educational needs and expectations, and that they also differ in terms of their marketing and communication preferences. That was our hypothesis.”

Jim Fong, Director de Center for Research and Strategy en UPCEA. Photo: AFP Abby Drey.
Jim Fong, Director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy. 

When the results came in, however, it was revealed that differences between generations do exist, but are not too dramatic. Instead, the results revealed there are some common aspects among all age groups. “What we learned was that there are opportunities and concerns that are much more alike than we imagined,” tells Christina Fleming, Blackboard’s Vice president of Marketing and Enrollment Solutions.

Christina Fleming, Vice President de Marketing and Enrollment Solutions, Blackboard. Photo: AFP Tasos Katopodis.
Christina Fleming, Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment Solutions, Blackboard. 

The Number One Factor: Affordability

The biggest cause of concern and frustration across all generations, according to the study, was affordability. When asked about the most important factors or attributes that they consider when deciding on attending a college or university, the respondents put affordability first (66%), followed by program offerings (47%), location (41%) and reputation (31%). They have also named financial aid and scholarships as the leading factor to their educational success (59%), followed by academic advising and support (53%). (Figure 1)

Although this was expected, the level of concern over financial aid and scholarship help was significant, says Fleming. “We knew that affordability would come up but we weren’t expecting to see the extreme level of concern over support services related to Financial Aid and scholarships, regardless of age.”

The concern around affordability reflects the rising cost of tuition in the United States and the growing amount of student loan debt. According to data assembled by the College Board organization, between 1997-98 and 2017–18, prices for undergraduate tuition and fees at private nonprofit institutions rose 65,2%, while prices at public institutions increased 110,3%, after adjustment for inflation.2 (Figure 2-3)

Student debt $1.3 trillion $1,283 trillion Most important factors to consider when deciding on attending a college or university Figure 1: Figure 2: Figure 3: Programofferings Location Reputation 66% 47% Leading factors of educational success Financialaid andscholarships Academicadvisingand support 59% 53% 41% 31% Americansowe instudent loans 2016 grossdomestic productof Russia 65,2% 110,3% Affordability Private nonprofitinstitutions Publicinstitutions Increment in undergraduate tuition and fees (1998-2018)

“Ten or 15 years ago, studies would say that students looked at value or quality first, and then price. But the United States higher education institutions have raised their tuition at such a high level that it has become the most important criteria now. People look at whether or not they can afford it and then they start assessing quality and the type of career they want,” says Fong.

According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student debt nearly doubled over the past decade. Americans owe over $1.3 trillion in student loans,3 which is more than the 2016 gross domestic product of Russia ($1,283 trillion).4 Borrowers leave school owing about $34,000 on average, a 70% increase from a decade ago.3

Furthermore, according to the Federal Reserve study, loan delinquency raised to 11.2% in the last quarter of 2016, the highest rate for all types of household debt.3 Consequently, student loan payment is coming after other imperative financial demands, such as mortgage payments, rent, and phone bills. In that scenario, in order to convince the adult learner to prioritize education, institutions need to demonstrate the return on investment, meaning they have to be very clear about how that degree or credential will benefit the students’ career in the immediate future.

In Flemings’ opinion, the best route for institutions when it comes to affordability is to focus their efforts around their student support services, and their ability to help students get real time assistance in sorting out their various financial options. The problem is that these services, which are crucial to students – financial aid and scholarship services – have earned the lowest scores in terms of satisfaction in the Blackboard/UPCEA research study.

“There are lots of options when it comes to financial aid and scholarship, and it’s confusing for students. Schools need to tackle affordability through offering the right services, to help them understand their options,” suggests Fleming. “It is equally important for a university to adequately communicate the return on investment that the student will achieve through job placement and career growth.”

Flexible learning options

Offering short-term learning options, such as credentials, micro-credentials, badges and certificates, is a trend that can’t be ignored, according to the survey results. It may be a consequence of our contemporary need to hurry, but the fact is that learners are interested in educational options other than conventional degrees.

“Especially the younger generation wants to be rewarded more often and for smaller modules of learning. They are very open to badges and certificates, and in fact, in a lot of cases if they can get the smaller pieces along the way, while getting their broader degree, that would be a preference,” says Fong.

“Micro-credentials or alternative credentials are really an exciting opportunity for institutions to try to offer programs that are shorter in terms of the time commitment and less expensive,” suggests Fleming. “They get the institution involved with that student, allow them to develop that relationship and then the student can stay consistently engaged with that institution, over a long period.”

Better communication

Students want to find all relevant information easily on the university website, including costs. And they also expect to receive a reply from institutions within a 24-hour period. What’s more, they want to communicate via social media.

Many institutions are still not fully prepared to meet these expectations. “Schools are doing better about following up quickly and thoroughly, but they are primarily using email to do that, and in some cases it is just an automated response,” points out Fleming. “The more that they can use human interaction and personalization to coach students along, the greater the opportunity to nurture students and keep that relationship very close.”

In some cases, says Christina, institutions are missing a fundamental point: having a well-designed website. “We learned that the first thing prospective students are going to do is browse the college website for information. And they are going to search online for costs, programs, ratings and reviews. So those are things that can’t be ignored. There has to be an evolving system that allows you to keep those tools updated and current.”

That means offering easy access to all information regarding learning options, return on investment and costs. However, Fong says that it is common for colleges and universities not wanting to show their prices at first. “I have had conversations with university presidents, provosts and vice presidents where they say ‘let us have students learn about us, learn about our program and then we will share with them the price’. And this generation is not tolerant of that. They need to see the price, and if they do not see the price they will become very frustrated and leave their internet search,” he warns.

Best practices: learn from Georgetown

The Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies is investing to truly transform their students’ experience. They have already applied many of the practices recommended in the study, in order to effectively tend to the different generations of learners.

Jason Smith, executive director of Enrollment Management, says that one of the most important changes made was regarding the school’s website. “A conscious effort was made to create a very outcomes-based website that speaks to the needs of prospective students today – especially those students interested in professional and continuing education. As the study demonstrated, all students are concerned about the value of higher education and this new website addresses this concern by pulling in facts around each of our program offerings and making learning a tangible, applied experience that students can benefit from quite immediately,” tells Smith. “This helps our students quickly understand their return on investment when thinking about the various offerings.”

Jason Smith, executive director de Enrollment Management, Escuela de Estudios continuos de la Universidad Georgetown. Photo: AFP Yuri Gripas.
Jason Smith, Executive Director of Enrollment Management, Georgetown University School of Continuining Studies. 

Another important improvement is rethinking the university’s portfolio. “Over the past few years, students have come to expect a level of flexibility that, in my opinion, many schools are still not capable of delivering,” says Smith. “At Georgetown, we are actively thinking through ways to make the student experience more flexible and fluid, especially since we cater to such a variety of students from ages 16-70. There was a time that simply having a fully online program was sufficient, but students today want the ability to move in and out of modalities.”

For Smith, short-term, non-credit and online programs all need to play a role in the portfolio to attract and grow enrollments, while satisfying student demand. “Prospective students are looking at other ways of gaining the experience and competencies they need to succeed in the workforce. Flexibility and a creative approach to short-term credentials will certainly be a focus in the coming years, as we think through a variety of learning options to accommodate the demand from all of our students, regardless of generation.”

What if your institution could get help to provide personalized support and services for students?

(MILLIONS) TBD 0 40 20 60 80 100 Traditionalists Baby boomers Generation X Millennials 75 60 82+ 80 Gen Z/Gen edge Yes I do not have a degree No Somewhat Generational differences Traditional age students Non traditional age students Pre-1946 1946-1964 1965-1979 1980-1995 1996-TBD grafica 1 Would you say you are using your degree in your current job? 23% 23% 25% 30% grafica 2 Someday, but not in the next few years Yes, very likely No, not planning on returning Are you planning on returning to college in the next 2 to 4 years? 35% 35% 30%

Why did you discontinue your program?

(Some college, but did not finish – multiple responses allowed)

  Gen Z (18 to 20) Millennials-Y (21 to 25) Millennials-M (26-30) Millennials-O (31-35) Millennials-X (36-40)
Cost was too high 33% 44% 46% 19% 30%
Lack of financial aid 33% 27% 46% 17% 18%
Already had a job 0% 8% 0% 23% 23%
Didn’t know major 50% 19% 14% 21% 8%
Didn’t fit in 17% 12% 7% 6% 15%
Difficulty with courses/ material 0% 23% 21% 15% 3%
Parents didn’t go 17% 4% 4% 0% 5%
More important responsibilities 33% 46% 18% 40% 33%
Not convenient 17% 8% 11% 11% 8%
Other 50% 23% 14% 17% 20%


 Gen Z responses %  0% – 10% 11% – 20% 21% – 30% 31% – 40% 41%-50%
 Millennials responses %  0% – 10% 11% – 20% 21% – 30% 31% – 40% 41%-50%

*  (Left) Jason Smith, executive director of Enrollment Management, Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Photo: AFP Yuri Gripas.

* (Center) Christina Fleming, vice-president of Marketing and Enrollment Solutions, Blackboard. Photo: AFP Tasos Katopodis.

* (Right) Jim Fong, director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy. Photo: AFP Abby Drey.


Blackboard/UPCEA. (2017, June). Navigating Generational Shifts: Understanding Today’s Student Demographics, Preferences and Expectations. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

2 College Board. (n.d.). Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time. Retrieved October 27, 2017, from

Chakrabarti, R., Gorton, N., & Van der Klaauw, W. (n.d.). Diplomas to Doorsteps: Education, Student Debt, and Homeownership   Liberty Street Economics. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

The World Bank. (2017, July 01). GDP ranking. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

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