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Communicating Value and Embracing Innovation in Higher Ed

Communicating Value and Embracing Innovation in Higher Ed
Keeping pace with the rapidly changing postsecondary landscape requires building connections with industry, communicating higher education’s value and offering the skills and tools students need to succeed. 

As higher education shifts to new ways of delivering the education modern learners want and need, it’s critical to keep value and innovation in mind. In this interview, Mark Curtis-Chavez discusses how the College of DuPage is able to get enrollment rates up, keeping up in a rapidly evolving landscape and advice to help higher ed leaders adapt to change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As you reflect on the past year, what notable achievements can you identify for higher education or for the College of DuPage?

Mark Curtis Chavez (MCC): College of DuPage recently implemented a plan to increase completion rates among our students. Community colleges are often questioned about those rates, so we’re making sure we do deliver them by democratizing data. This way, our faculty have access to the data. We also want to create a sense of belonging for students. Additionally, we have established a student success fund to support our faculty, who are driving this effort. Finally, we’re pleased that our enrollment rates are up 5.8%, which is great to see.

Evo: Where are your enrollment numbers coming from? Is your audience more traditional or nontraditional?

MCC: For a community college, we are unique in that we have a large traditionally aged student demographic. Many students are also enrolled in our career and technical education programs. It’s not quite a 50/50 mix, but it’s near there. Many community colleges serve older students—and we have those here too—but the largest group would be our traditionally aged students.

We’ve done a lot of work to understand our marketing efforts within the dual credit space and within the community. We’re quite active in the business community, which has helped spread a good message about our college that has been building up for years. We’re now reaping that reward.

Evo: What do higher ed leaders need to consider going into the next year, especially in a rapidly evolving landscape?

MCC: The changing demographics in the U.S. reflect what’s happening in college. Many students want to be online, and many adult learners are returning to us with some college but no degree or to gain entry into or stay in the middle class. However, the way they want their education delivered now is different than the way we’ve been delivering it.

To meet that changing demographic, you need to grow and change. So, it’s important to figure out what your population wants and how they want it delivered. We need to evolve from being gatekeepers of higher ed to being gateways to support and opportunity.

Evo: What are some challenges institutions face?

MCC: First, we’re faced with the challenge of the perception of higher ed’s value. We must do a better job of addressing our value. Enrollment remains, for most institutions, an ongoing challenge. And funding is a perennial challenge. States are putting in more parameters for funding, and some are considering pulling it all together.

Evo: What’s required of higher ed leaders to be more equipped for the upcoming year?

MCC: We must do a better job of communicating our strengths and values. Community colleges are teaching institutions, not research institutions. We have some of the best teachers and, combined with small class sizes, students have the best opportunity for interactions with the experts in their learning journey. Moreover, we do teach the 21st-century skills that employers demand.

Evo: What’s some advice you’d share with higher ed leaders going into the new year, and are you keeping your eye on any trends in the space right now?

MCC: The pandemic effect isn’t over. We’ve learned that students are now wanting to take more face-to-face classes, but that doesn’t mean online education is dwindling back to pre-pandemic levels.

We also have competition outside of traditional higher ed. Other organizations are looking into non-degree programming, so it’s important for leaders to keep an eye on it. We have to match our competition because students will go where they feel they’re best served—especially in an online environment.

Community colleges are often the most responsive group in higher ed. It’s important to be ready to serve your learners in whatever way you can. Let your community know that they can reach out whenever they need your help.