Reaching More adult learners
The state constitution requires the benefits of public higher education to be extended to the people of North Carolina — all of them. To truly fulfill this constitutional duty, the UNC System must more fully adapt to the needs of today’s learners and a changing labor market.
Accessing higher education and relevant training can be challenging for working adults. Barriers include time, money, a bewildering array of options, and uncertain connections to a clear career path.
The UNC System is committed to developing new models and services that can fit into the busy lives of working adults and that directly align with careers in growing fields.
Developing these models will not only help North Carolinians access better jobs, it will also help UNC institutions serve a new and almost entirely untapped segment of the population. Creating pathways for working adults will also benefit the state, driving economic growth by creating a more skilled workforce, including in areas that have been historically underserved by higher education.
“It’s time to address our obligation to adult learners and veterans and underserved populations in a more comprehensive manner, to stand again for the idea that there’s more than one path to success — to help every person realize their potential…We must stand alongside the very people who need us the most and enable their dreams to take flight.”
UNC System President Peter Hans
Project Kitty Hawk
In 2021, the state budget passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor appropriated $97 million for the launch of Project Kitty Hawk, a nonprofit ed-tech startup that will partner with UNC System universities to serve adult learners. This new, agile business model will leverage best practices from the private sector, lessons from other state system initiatives, and proven strategies from leading online institutions.
The new entity will help universities design workforce-aligned online programs, as well as attract, enroll, and support learners through graduation. UNC System university faculty and staff will deliver quality instruction, assess student learning, and award credentials to adult degree seekers.
Project Kitty Hawk will facilitate improved collaboration among campuses, better connections with employers, and improved success for nontraditional learners who are currently not enrolled or are enrolled with out-of-state providers.
Meeting the State’s Needs
North Carolina has set an ambitious attainment goal that 2 million North Carolinians will have completed a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030. If current trends persist, the state will be about 400,000 short of that target by the end of the decade. To reach the state’s goal, universities must extend the benefits of higher education to far more North Carolinians than just those between the ages of 18 and 24.
- Working adult learners are a large underserved market in North Carolina
There are more than 5 million working adults in North Carolina. About 1 million of those have some college, but no degree. The current supply of educational offerings and services is simply not meeting the educational attainment goals of our state.
- Most UNC System schools lack the services and infrastructure to serve working adults
Universities have not traditionally been set up to serve working adult learners. Working adults overwhelmingly prefer online education with flexible scheduling, high-touch support, and shorter-form training while in pursuit of a four-year degree. About 9% of UNC System undergraduates learn exclusively online, and just 13% are over the age of 25.
- Current private sector offerings do not meet the needs
Large out-of-state online universities attract many of North Carolina’s adult learners, sometimes leaving them with debt and no degree. Over 60,000 North Carolinians are currently enrolled in such programs. They need better options.
How It Works
UNC System universities can choose to partner with Project Kitty Hawk, which will offer a range of services to develop online programs and to attract, support and retain adult learners. In return, Project Kitty Hawk will receive a share of the revenue generated by student enrollment in programs it helps develop. Its non-profit status will allow Project Kitty Hawk to take a smaller percentage of revenues than is typical among private sector firms, to target undergraduate programs that private online program managers typically avoid, and to invest in student supports that drive success.
- Market Validation: Kitty Hawk will validate market demand for any new program it supports. New program opportunities can emerge from partner universities, originate from Kitty Hawk’s own market intelligence, or be solicited directly from employers and education benefit providers.
- Program Design: The next step is to work with universities to design the programs and courses to fit the market demand. A team of technologists and instructional designers will collaborate with university faculty to design learner-centric programs that meet the unique needs of working adults.
- Technology: Reaching adult learners requires technology that fits their busy lives and the competing demands of family, work, and education. Kitty Hawk will provide all the technology necessary to attract students in a competitive online market and ensure student success.
- Marketing: Kitty Hawk will coordinate marketing on behalf of partner universities and optimize advertising and recruitment across the state to ensure minimal overlap and cost-effective student recruitment.
- Enrollment and Matriculation: Kitty Hawk will provide high-touch support from real people to shepherd prospective students through the entire admissions and enrollment process, with assistance available on-demand.
- Student Success: Navigating college is hard for any learner, but it is exceptionally difficult for those who are working full time and managing family responsibilities. Kitty Hawk will ensure every student has a coach to assist with reaching goals.