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Will it get me a job?

The two partners behind the research marketing firm Academica tell us what today’s students are looking for in a university education.

BY VIRGINIA GALT | OCT 12 2010

Ken Steele – researcher, marketer and “recovering academic” – spends three weeks out of four on the road, delivering a message to university faculty and administrators that they don’t always want to hear: Student expectations have changed dramatically, with scholarship taking a back seat to careerism.

“Outcomes are becoming more important,” says Mr. Steele. “‘Can it get me a job?’ is the question now, more so than ‘Will it look good on my wall?’”

While no one is suggesting that universities should capitulate to every whim of the marketplace, Mr. Steele and his business partner Rod Skinkle say the status quo is no longer an option, either. The structures and traditions that have served universities so well for generations are now under pressure from “unprecedented political, economic, social and technological change,” asserts Mr. Steele.

He and Mr. Skinkle are co-founders of Academica Group, a research marketing firm based in London, Ontario, that tracks the trends in what students are looking for in a university through its annual survey of university and college applicants in Canada and the United States. It’s the largest and probably longest-running survey of its kind in North America. They also keep abreast of the news by compiling the widely followed Academica’s Top Ten electronic newsletter, a compendium of stories in the media and press releases about higher education in Canada (freely available every weekday to e-mail subscribers).

To prepare for the future, universities should, at the very least, be aware of the shifting landscape, says Mr. Skinkle.  These changes include:

  • the more pragmatic attitude of prospective students and of their heavily involved parents in the face of economic uncertainty;
  • an ageing population, which could mean fewer young people to fill the labs and classrooms;
  • the ambitious higher-education aspirations of new Canadians;
  • the rapid pace of technological change;
  • a wider array of postsecondary choices for the sought-after best and brightest;
  • emerging competition from the private sector.

Mr. Skinkle, with a master’s degree in applied research from the University of Saskatchewan, worked for 10 years in student services at the University of Western Ontario before starting Acumen Research Group in 1996. The company’s first major project was applicant research for universities. Mr. Steele, whose father was a renowned history professor at Western, left his PhD studies in English literature at the University of Toronto in 1990 to found an advertising agency.  The two companies merged in 2005. Besides conducting the annual University-College Applicant Study, Academica provides customized research to postsecondary institutions and advises them on marketing, recruitment and enrolment strategies.

Mr. Steele and Mr. Skinkle recently sat down with University Affairs for a conversation about what students want, how universities are responding and what the future holds. This is some of what they had to say.

UA: Your most recent survey, conducted earlier this year, canvassed more than 200,000 Canadian university applicants about what they want in a university. What did you find, and what has changed over the past couple of decades?

Mr. Steele: University applicants have become more sophisticated, informed decision-makers in planning their postsecondary education. They are looking under the hood – looking at the specs, if you like – and contemplating what they are going to get out of it, more so than 20 years ago when you got a BA and you were okay.

We asked applicants what motivated them to go to university, and the answer we got was that 99 percent of them chose either “career preparation” or “career advancement” as one of their reasons. Actually learning something was [cited] by three-quarters of the students. You can see in the applications … that they quickly gravitate to programs where they [believe] that there are going to be employment possibilities. Right now it is education, nursing, social work programs that are seeing the growth in applications, because students see public-sector employment as more secure right now than the private sector.

The careerist bent is certainly driving the decision-making process, and the unfortunate thing from my perspective is that this doesn’t help the humanities. In Canada, there is growing uncertainty about what the value is of a humanities degree, if the purpose of [going to] university
is to get a job. The universities have not clearly articulated the value of a humanities degree, and employers aren’t clearly articulating the importance of that kind of education.

Mr. Skinkle: The biggest change is the heterogeneity [of university applicants]. They are not all birds of a feather as they were 20 years ago. The marketplace itself is much more complex, with more non-traditional students, more students of various immigration backgrounds and ethnicity. The entire marketplace is changing, which is driving the question of what students are looking for.  The answer is, “well, a lot of different things.” The challenge for universities is they don’t change all that readily.

UA: When it comes to deciding on a university, what matters most?

Mr. Steele: The average undergraduate applicant in Canada is still most affected by the institution’s academic reputation when choosing a university. So, fundamentally, they are looking at that badge they are going to wear for the rest of their life. And the quality of faculty comes very close to overall institutional reputation as a deciding factor for the university.

Mr. Skinkle: Just to be very clear, the data shows that [university applicants] are looking at teaching very seriously. They are not looking at research.

Mr. Steele: They think if they choose the right school, they are going to have faculty members who are good teachers … Back 30 years ago, we wanted to go and study alongside great scholars, even if their interpersonal skills were abysmal. It was the opportunity to rub shoulders with brilliant people. Now there’s much more interest in finding faculty members who can teach. … It reflects the same general movement to higher participation rates and more career and professional programs at university.

Mr. Skinkle: When you look at the United States, you see tremendous growth in online education at [for-profit] universities like [University of] Phoenix, despite the fact that they are charging twice the tuition of public universities. It’s really because the non-traditional student is looking for that flexibility. There was sort of this unmet, pent-up need from people who wanted an education but couldn’t do it because they couldn’t quit their jobs or leave their families to go off and do a traditional education. They’re just thriving on those unmet needs because other institutions couldn’t for a variety of reasons.

Mr. Steele: I think that’s one of the things that may be a problem going forward, that institutions have marginalized flexible education into continuing education and distance education programs.

Mr. Steele: New Canadians are much more likely to say they want to commute to university and live with their parents, so from a very practical point of view it runs counter to the idea that they are going to come and live in residence for four years. There will still be a market for those four-year residential schools – Queen’s and Western have invested in huge new residence halls – but more and more of the [Greater Toronto Area] students are going to be new Canadians who are more interested in commuting from home. There is measurably more involvement of parents for new Canadians and first-generation Canadians.UA: Your research indicates that student priorities vary by age, cultural background and academic discipline. What surprised you?

And when we looked at [the priorities] of environmental science students, I was expecting we would find a bunch of altruistic next-generation hippies who are studying environmental science because they want to make the world a better place, and so on. I was a little surprised by just how much careerism there was. I thought it was kind of an interesting confluence of features there – these are actually some of the students who put a bit more emphasis on the creature comforts of living on campus. It was not quite the profile I was expecting to find.

UA: What do universities want in their students?

Mr. Steele: Well, different universities have different positions on that, but every faculty member would like brighter students. It’s still the principal selection criteria.

UA: What are universities doing to attract them?

Mr. Steele: We have lots of universities that guarantee residence to all first-year students, and many that guarantee scholarships at certain grade-point averages. Lakehead has gone the farthest, in guaranteeing free tuition if you have a 95-percent average. The University of Calgary raised the bar by guaranteeing that you will complete in four years. Then the University of Regina went further and said “we guarantee that, within six months, you will have a job in your chosen career. If you don’t, you can come back for free courses,” which is sort of the unspoken flip side of the guarantee.

We have seen a steadily rising influence of faculty-specific marketing materials. I think there is more and more interest in program-specific stuff, because it is more about outcome and career. So instead of saying, “Well, Western or Queen’s?” it can be “Who has the best applied orthodontics program?”

Mr. Skinkle: A more sophisticated consumer is going to be able to make better choices between programs.

UA: What do you see happening in the next 10 years?

Mr. Steele: Many regions of Canada will see declining youth populations for the next 20 years. Institutions in these regions will either have to face reduced enrolments and resources or find a compelling distinction that will attract students nationally and internationally, despite their location. Mature students will gravitate to institutions designed to meet their needs – either the cohort-based hybrid model of Royal Roads University or the chronological and geographic flexibility of online education.

We now have podcasted lectures and other ways of delivering content. I think the lecture is the next big thing to be rethought. Study after study demonstrates that podcasting lectures assists learning because [students] can fast-forward and rewind and play it over and can study it more intensively and interactively than sitting through a lecture.

Unless employers raise public awareness about the value of humanities graduates in senior leadership positions, or we see the rise of what Richard Florida calls “the creative class,” undergraduates will continue to lose interest in traditional humanities programs. And we will see continued, and likely increased, labour unrest on campuses as universities undergo significant change.

Student desires

Differences are in the details. While today’s university applicants overall are far more concerned about their eventual career prospects than previous generations of students, Academica Group found subtle differences between disciplines when it drilled into the data. These excerpts come from a series of white papers posted on Academica’s website (academica.ca) in June 2010:

Arts and humanities: higher-ed traditionalists, more attracted by international exchanges, a safe and attractive campus, small classes, social life and school traditions. They are less concerned with employment outcomes, co-op placements, technology and research.

Social sciences: also traditionalists, like their humanities peers, attracted by campus and extra-curricular factors, but more concerned about finances and more attracted by nurturing factors like personal attention, small classes and a
small student body.

Sciences: attracted by high-profile research and the opportunity to participate in research, the latest technology and merit-based scholarships. They are less interested in co-op placements, relevant industry nearby, or student leadership opportunities.

Environmental science: pragmatic careerists, attracted by co-op and undergraduate research opportunities, as well as ease of admission. But they also are interested in their own environment – campus food services, residences, and off-
campus urban life.

Computer science: focused careerists, lured by co-op placements, the latest technology, relevant industry nearby and strong career outcomes. They give less thought to campus amenities or student life in general.

Business and commerce: careerists to the core, emphasizing co-ops, exchange programs, employment outcomes and grad school place­ments. They’re also somewhat elitist, focusing more on rankings, entrance averages and oppor­tunities for leadership and gifted students.

PUBLISHED BY
Virginia Galt
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