What Higher Ed Can Learn From JMU’s Adult Degree Program Success

By: Eric McGee Apr 21, 2021

What Higher Ed Can Learn From JMU’s Adult Degree Program Success

In the struggle to meet enrollment goals, programs of all types can look to the example set by adult degree programs. They’ve been refining online programs and serving nontraditional students for decades. One such degree completion program is the program at James Madison University.

Founded in 1976, James Madison University’s Adult Degree Program has continuously evolved. In the first few decades, their evolution was slow and steady, but in the last few years, they decided to increase their investment in growing their program. With the support of the EducationDynamics enrollment management services team, the results have been impressive. They’ve grown their program from five tracks to nine, introduced new pricing strategies to attract more applicants, and taken a close look at how to engage and retain online students. Along the way, their partnership with EducationDynamics has given them the marketing and enrollment management support to scale and improve their program.

As JMU’s marketing and recruitment partner, EDDY manages digital marketing and provides direct enrollment support in an OPM-like style partnership. Our enrollment coaches walk potential students through every step of the enrollment process from first contact through complete enrollment. From there, success coaches take over. They continue the high-touch support model that boosts retention and improves persistence. Throughout the process, data sharing between JMU and EDDY ensures that every student gets the tailored support they need.

Lessons learned through this partnership could help other programs meet the challenges facing education in a post-pandemic world.

Even the strongest programs face real challenges

James Madison University in Virginia boasts retention and completion rates above the national average. Their Adult Degree program serves people 22 years of age or older who are interested in pursuing higher education. Their students enroll to finish a degree, build up transfer credits, or earn stackable credentials. The ultimate goal is career entry, enhancement, or advancement.

Unlike many adult ed programs, JMU relies almost exclusively on its full-time faculty to teach online classes. That means students get the same education they would in person, but with a more flexible schedule and structure. The core of their program is a Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Studies that can be customized to meet student needs.

When the pandemic pushed learning online, the degree completion program was in a position to pivot more quickly than other programs at JMU and programs at other institutions lacking the comprehensive online infrastructure. They had experience supporting students online. Flexible schedules were nothing new. Plus recruitment and retention were already at the top of their priority list.

“We are in a really exciting time with all of the technological advances that we’ve seen in education and the exposure of remote and virtual learning due to COVID-19. Everyone is a nontraditional student right now,” says Melissa Lubin, Dean for Professional and Continuing Education. “The way that we’re approaching learning goes way beyond the traditional adult learning market, and it attracts all learners.”

Data and partnerships support recruitment and retention

The Lumina Foundation reports that about 51% of American adults have no credentialing beyond high school. To address this issue, they’ve set a goal to have 60% of Americans credentialed by 2025. In response, 45 states have set their own attainment goals. Virginia is one of the high achievers, with 57.4% of adults holding some sort of post-secondary credential.

JMU’s partnership with EDDY has helped them to streamline their already high-performing recruitment strategy. When students express interest in the Adult Degree Program, EDDY’s enrollment coaches reach out to students as soon as possible to achieve responsive engagement. Both JMU and EDDY use customized versions of Salesforce to track students from that first contact through enrollment and beyond.

Interconnected data systems allow them to streamline processes so advisors and coaches can apply their effort where it is most needed. Although each organization employs Salesforce in slightly different ways, they’ve connected the two systems to share information and have deployed a student-focused engagement strategy that includes email, phone, text and social media channels. As soon as an inquiry comes in, it’s fed into a contact strategy customized to the student’s preferences.

“As we’ve become more technologically diverse, it’s enabled us to communicate in the way that is best for each student,” Lubin says. Advisors and coaches interact with students via Zoom, email, texting, phone, or even by meeting them in person.

“Just five years ago, we were primarily using the phone to communicate with our students. And that can be much more intrusive,” Lubin says. “It can also be more limiting because we tend to work nine to five and so do a lot of our students. So that’s not the best time to call and have a conversation.”

Reconnecting with stop-outs

JMU has also focused on stop-outs as a part of its enrollment strategy. The need is great. About 36 million U.S. adults hold some postsecondary education but have stopped out.

JMU has traditionally achieved high retention and completion rates when compared to the national averages. But over the last five to eight years, retention has been dropping one or two points a year across the university. That might not sound like much, but JMU didn’t want the trend to continue. The degree completion program stepped up to help. They already had a case study to prove that stop-out campaigns worked.

In 2012 the degree completion program had a small grant to do data analysis to find students who had left JMU with a certain number of credits but no degree. They worked with the registrar’s office to run the list through the National Student Data Clearinghouse. Then they reached out to those students.

“We thought, you know, it’ll be years before we see the fruit of this,” MacDonald says. Instead, they had students graduate and finish their degrees within the year.

“All of a sudden we had graduates to show for this tiny little grant in this tiny little one-year program.”

The program has been so successful that JMU is now working with EducationDynamics and programs across campus to roll it out across the entire institution.

High-touch strategies enhance retention

The same sort of high-touch philosophy and data sharing applies to retention as well. They’re able to track student engagement and interaction. If anything unusual pops up—a student hasn’t logged on recently or has missed assignments—coaches and advisors are alerted and can reach out to the student to find out what’s going on.

In the past, they relied on instructors to point out these issues. Often at-risk students stayed off the radar until it was too late. The one person on staff responsible for student advising also managed many other tasks. With technology and success coaching support from EDDY the degree completion program can touch base with students more often and without burning out their internal team.

“It’s multiple touchpoints with every student so that they’re never out there wandering in the wilderness feeling like they’re on their own,” MacDonald says.

Remote strategies to strengthen student engagement

Students get face-time with the director of their program, their academic advisor, or their professors during virtual office hours. JMU is also expanding its peer mentoring program to include adult learners.

Ideally, the degree completion program wants to support students so they never fall into the at-risk category. They’re adjusting and expanding student support services to reach as many students as possible.

“In some cases, we’ve been able to access student support services happening on campus, and in some cases, those services have just changed to be able to really think about a broader population of students,” MacDonald says.

The new VP of Student Affairs has a goal that online students get as much support as the students who live on campus. He’s identified groups that might need support, including adult learners, veterans, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, the list goes on.

“Not only is he thinking about them, he’s actively creating programs for them and making sure they’re not being left out of even the conceptual conversations in his division,” MacDonald says.

As an example, their Writing Center now serves students online. The pandemic encouraged the change. The student response has been so positive that MacDonald doesn’t believe they’ll go back to an in-person-only model.

An evolving adult education program

Ultimately, all of these changes and refinements are just the beginning. JMU’s Adult Degree Program will continue to evolve with student needs. Along the way, EDDY will be there to provide data and support their team.

To start putting some of these strategies to work for your program, contact the enrollment and retention experts at EducationDynamics. Keep students engaged from consideration to graduation.