Rethinking Higher Education: One University’s Journey to Increase Access and Affordability

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Rethinking Higher Ed Go To Market

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  • Education
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Higher education today often feels stuck in the past, especially when it comes to marketing strategies and curriculum creation. Traditional models cater to a narrow demographic of students. A demographic that is shrinking, changing. This focus leaves behind a wide array of potential learners.  Rampant cost increases have put college out of reach for many working adults and first-generation students. It’s time for colleges and universities to fundamentally reimagine themselves to expand access and affordability. 

In this episode of Test. Learn. Grow., we explore how one university did just that. Faced with declining enrollment and budget struggles, Unity Environmental University completely reinvented their approach to higher education. 

Transforming Higher Education: Unity’s Bold Shift

Unity began by taking a hard look at who they were serving – and who they weren’t. As a small private college focused on environmental science, they had historically attracted a regional student body looking for a traditional residential experience. But with demographic shifts and increased competition, this approach was no longer sustainable. 

Rather than making incremental tweaks, Unity opted for transformational change. They didn’t simply add some online courses – they pivoted their entire model to serve new audiences through online, low-residency, and competency-based programs. An innovative pay-per-credit structure with accelerated 8-week terms removed systemic cost barriers. And significant investment in instructional design and education technology enabled engaging learning without lengthy on-campus requirements. Unity recognized that the models of years past followed in the footsteps of large, endowment-funded universities who may never face the same challenges as a smaller, niche organization. They came to the enrollment-saving conclusion that they have to solve their own problems, not someone else’s. 

Innovative Solutions for Growth

Core to their evolution was building a multifaceted outreach team tailored to diverse audiences. Instead of forcing a single admissions department to be all things to all students, they created specialized groups dedicated to specific demographics. This allowed them to intimately understand the unique needs and challenges of each learner group. Whether it was working adults, veterans, or marginalized populations, this highly targeted approach was essential. 

Of course, such sweeping changes required rethinking curriculum design and teaching approaches. Instructional designers, VR technology, remote collaboration tools, and a focus on personalized experiences allowed them to deliver quality education anywhere. Platforms and pedagogy came together to provide flexibility and meet students where they were. 

Redefining Success in Higher Education

The results speak for themselves. Enrollment skyrocketed from 200 to over 7,000 students per year. The diversity and average age of Unity’s student body increased dramatically. And their reach expanded from primarily regional to national, with a majority of their students now out-of-state. With this success also came unforeseen advantages. In a class covering flora and fauna of local environments, students might hear about a unique kind of tree in Oregon or a newly discovered species in Hawaii. Learning has become as diverse as their student body. 

Throughout their evolution, Unity held onto their mission-driven focus on environmental science education. But they realized that being true to their purpose required them to completely reimagine how to achieve it. In the innovative spirit of learning itself, they evolved to make education work for all. 

Unity provides an inspirational case study of a university meeting the moment. Their story demonstrates that access, affordability, and academic excellence can go hand in hand. It’s time to rethink higher ed. The future is here – we just need to catch up. If your institution needs help rethinking their go-to-market strategy, book a strategy call with us. We can help.

This episode of Test. Learn. Grow. is sponsored by CompleteU Education. To learn more about CompleteU, visit their website.

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