Recognize, Revise and Reimagine: How CE Drives Higher Education’s EvolutionLesley Nichols | Executive Director of Professional Studies, Emerson College
The ground has been shifting under our feet in higher education for the past two decades. In the United States, we’re seeing a lot of debate at the national level about the value of a degree as more non-traditional students look for ways to pursue education on terms that better fit their needs. A four-year degree is still the perfect choice for some, but it isn’t the right choice for everyone.
First, we need to accept that funneling everyone into the same box isn’t the only path. The notion of shorter-term, lower cost, stackable credentials has really taken off in popularity. The looming student loan debt crisis is opening eyes to different perspectives for educational attainment that can be both affordable and flexible for busy lifestyles. And it’s not just Millennials and Generation Z students looking for alternatives—mid-career professionals looking to change careers, obtain a promotion or start their own business are recognizing the need for lifelong learning beyond the bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Providing alternative academic pathways, like taking individual courses, certificates, or boot camps either for credit or non-credit, is the perfect way for higher education to open their doors and fulfill this need.
Unfortunately, tradition can be our own worst enemy. Colleges and universities have a rich history that lends our industry credibility and trust, but most of our institutions of higher learning were created to grant degrees. Consequently, the infrastructure was built to serve degree-seeking students in an era before online courses even existed.
Everything from the software systems we use, financial aid rules, transcripts, faculty hiring models, career services, health services, payment systems, marketing language, and even the definition of credit hours all cater to serving the traditional full-time student. Even the hours of business for most institutions adhere to the historical daytime model when all students lived on campus and attended classes full-time during the day.
Online, evening and weekend courses have been the great hope as a bridge to open opportunities for new audiences. But we still encounter stumbling blocks. For example, is a student taking a non-credit course eligible to access the same campus services as a degree-seeking student? What if the student is taking a weekend class and service offices are closed? We’ve made significant progress creating programming bridges, but the infrastructure supporting these bridges hasn’t caught up yet.
It may take a critical mass of enrollment volume and public demand for alternatives to start shifting that paradigm. But at least the conversations are now happening to build momentum around the changes needed to attract and retain new audiences.
How CE Divisions Can Help Higher Ed Bridge the Gap from Traditional to the New Normal
For continuing education divisions, offering flexible, high-quality programming to non-traditional students across a diverse range of formats and program types is not new—or even particularly innovative! These divisions can play a huge role in making this peripheral approach to delivering postsecondary programming the norm.
Of course, the first step lies in bringing CE into conversations around access, infrastructure, academic planning, and support. Having that voice at the table helps to ensure that the needs of non-traditional students are considered alongside the needs of traditional degree-seeking students.
At Emerson, we’ve spent the past three years since I arrived trying to build exactly these sorts of bridges. Key steps we’ve taken include bringing graduate and professional studies under the same leadership umbrella and working more closely with academic departments to plan courses and programming. In partnership with the academic units, we’ve launched graduate certificate programs, taught primarily online, that can serve as stand-alone entry points for students to take individual courses, earn a certificate credential or pipeline directly into a master’s degree. We’ve worked with academic departments to increase the number of online courses offered during the summer so that both degree- and non-degree-seeking students have access to courses that allow for flexible schedules that can balance work or internships.
We also integrated our pre-college summer program applications with the college’s admissions CRM so high school students who apply for pre-college use the same system as prospective undergraduate students. This also allows us to track the progress of those who start with pre-college and matriculate into an undergraduate program at Emerson.
Most recently, we moved our physical office from an isolated space into the academic building alongside our peers in central college leadership and academic departments. The goal is to create opportunities for face-to-face interactions with our colleagues and students in order to incorporate professional education into strategic conversations. Even symbolic changes can be very powerful.
Obstacles Standing in the Way of Reimagining Higher Education
One potential obstacle standing in the way of this new reality lies in changing perspectives about what it means to open up degree courses to non-degree seeking students. Non-traditional learners might be a different age or bring different perspectives based on their work and life experience. Financial aid can be limited or non-existent for non-degree students, so self-paying students often have an expectation of receiving immediate proof of their return on investment. “How can I take what I’m learning and apply it towards my current job or facilitate a career change?” Non-traditional students aren’t afraid to question their professor and challenge information presented in class, based on their own experience.
These factors can be daunting for an instructor, but CE has a role to play in dispelling the perceived negatives and highlighting the benefits of welcoming diversity, so that students of all ages and levels of experience can benefit from interacting with each other. From an infrastructure perspective, the challenge lies in working within systems and business processes that don’t always fit non-traditional learning.
One issue I’m currently tackling is how to create a more seamless experience for non-degree students to register for credit-bearing courses. Our systems and policies don’t allow non-degree students to self-register, so we’ve been working through numerous scenarios to make this process as Amazon-like as possible students while keeping the back-end mechanics manageable for our staff.
A Roadmap for Non-Traditional Leaders
Achieving a tighter relationship between CE and the main campus is absolutely achievable. It’s all about building positive relationships with your peers across campus and growing your operation to a point where you can demonstrate results.
Much of my work has focused on gaining an understanding of how existing infrastructure works and how we can propose adaptations to open doors for new audiences, new types of programming, and new ways of thinking. I find that if I take the time to understand how other areas on campus work and the challenges they face, I’m a better advocate for fitting needs of our students into the framework. This knowledge gives me the credibility to speak the same language and work with others to find creative solutions that work for all parties.
It’s natural to encounter skepticism, and it can be disheartening when you propose new ideas but don’t get the immediate buy-in you were hoping to receive. CE units often have to prove that what they’re doing is worthwhile, and it takes time to build the infrastructure and programming needed to achieve demonstrable results. If I walk into a meeting to advocate for offering more online courses, there’s no incentive for anyone to listen unless I can prove there is demand for these offerings. But if I can walk into that same meeting three years later and show that we’ve increased online enrollment by 277 percent, those results speak for themselves.
Author Perspective: Administrator