In brief

In brief

  • Accenture research and analysis surfaced six learner segments based on learning mindsets, goals and emotions.
  • We found strong alignment in current satisfaction within and across segments and uncovered program and service delivery preferences by segment.
  • The study’s findings present a strong imperative for institutions starting to think differently about how they serve students over their lifetimes.
  • These insights can help institutions appropriately assess service gaps, address student needs and expand their reach to new learner groups.

The accelerating pace of change in higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated changes already underway in higher education, including a reduced pool of "traditional" students, an increasing societal need for lifelong credentialing and skilling, the rise of alternative education providers (such as private education companies, bootcamp providers and employers) and changing student expectations.

For many colleges and universities, succeeding in this context means both improving service to existing students as well as pivoting to serve new student segments across the learner lifetime. Doing this well means understanding learners’ varied journeys and motivations.

To help, Accenture conducted research on how colleges and universities can differentiate their approach to serving learners across a lifetime, inside and outside the classroom, to improve student satisfaction, experience, outcomes and equity.

In Summer 2021, we surveyed 6,500+ post-secondary US learners aged 16 to 65+. Our research went beyond most student surveys to include the population of "all learners"—that is, both current and prospective students, those seeking either academic degrees or professional certificates, and those attending or considering any type of post-secondary education provider.

Accenture’s analysis surfaced six distinct segments of learners who are clustered based on learning mindsets, goals and emotions rather than demographic factors, such as age or type of institution.

A new way to segment learners

Wayfinding Intellectuals (7%)

Full-time, intellectually curious students seeking to explore a broad array of disciplines and to conduct research, with strong interest in staying within academia.

Example: An undecided major at a small liberal arts college who is making great connections with professors through research and is seriously considering graduate studies.

Campus Enthusiasts (16%)

Residential students actively participating on campus—inside and outside the classroom—who plan to start their first job after graduation.

Example: A student at a large state school who evaluated Greek life, student clubs, sports teams and gyms before deciding to enroll.

Junior Specialists (31%)

Focused learners pursuing a credential to secure their first job in a specific field.

Example: A commuter student working part time who selected a major early on and has a clear career goal.

Evolving Professionals (23%)

Successful, early-stage workers seeking to expand their industry knowledge while satisfying their intellectual curiosity.

Example: An early-career professional going back to school for an MBA and interested in programs that emphasize the theoretical and practical sides of Finance.

Mid-Career Climbers (14%)

Full-time workers looking to advance in their careers by obtaining a credential in a specific skill-based area valued by their employer.

Example: A middle manager with a busy career whose mentor recommended using their company’s tuition stipend for an Executive Leadership certificate course before next year’s promotion reviews.

Trajectory Transformers (9%)

Full-time workers who are skeptical about the value and outcomes of credentials but seek short, focused programs for building specific skills and being able to change careers.

Example: A full-time worker facing uncertain job security in their current field who is seeking a specific coding bootcamp program with consistently high outcomes.

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Segment satisfaction today

Our study revealed a high degree of alignment in current satisfaction within and across segments. Students are most satisfied with how colleges and universities describe their academic program offering and then provide academic advising to help students navigate through it. Students are less satisfied with the level of support they are receiving in critical non-academic areas, such as financial counseling, mental health and wellness and disability support. For every segment, "Greater flexibility around coursework modality (online, onsite, hybrid opportunities)" emerged among the top-four desired program improvements.

Ninety-six percent of students find a high-quality digital experience important to their satisfaction – an increase from 2017.

Service delivery preferences

Accenture’s research also uncovered program and service delivery preferences by segment. All segments have a good mix of students who want in-person vs. online. These findings suggest that colleges and universities need to deliver nearly all services well across modalities. Without that ability, they risk losing large portions of their target segment(s) of students.

Delivery preference for some activities cuts across segments. Students do value in-person delivery—especially for certain deeply relevant experiences, such as graduation, internships and clubs/organizations. Students generally do not want in-person interactions for most administrative services (for example, researching programs, applying, registering for classes, paying bills, getting IT support and reviewing records).

For some activities, there is correlation between segments and delivery preferences. For example, some segments have a greater preference for in-person delivery for some activities than other segments. These differences will be important when targeting and serving specific segments.

Retooling the student experience

Together, these findings present a strong imperative for institutions starting to think differently about how they serve students. The insights can help institutions appropriately assess service gaps, address student needs and expand their reach to new learner groups. To do this, institutions can use our toolkit of offerings to accomplish one or all of these pivotal goals.

1. Identify target learner segments

Build on the six segments with an institution-specific reflection. Clarify your learner targets and journeys. Assess how to meet each segment’s needs.

2. Manage relationships across learner lifetime

Shift your thinking toward building a 60-year relationship with students by addressing their changing needs throughout their lifetimes.

3. Allocate resources with a zero-based mindset

Look across your spend and organizational structure to identify how it might evolve to better support current/future strategic objectives.

4. Implement modern, cloud-based ERP or SIS

Take an experience-led view to design a technology architecture for a frictionless future for all the segments served.

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Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

Jenny Brodie

Senior Manager – Health & Public Service, Research


Impact of COVID-19: Tune in to student sentiments
Revolutionizing a hybrid campus experience

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