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Fueling Growth Through Senior Leadership Championing Continuing Education

Continuing education units must and should play a key role in institutional strategy, but fulfilling its potential to be a critical source of education for a wide variety of learners with diverse needs requires getting leadership buy-in.

The support for continuing education (CE) and buy-in from senior leadership has evolved in recent years, with increasing recognition of the need to adapt and innovate in higher ed. This support is crucial to allocating resources effectively and fostering innovation, playing an essential role in institutional strategies. In this interview, Tatum Thomas discusses how support for CE has evolved, what’s still required to have adequate support and the impact this support can have on the institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen the support for continuing education and buy-in from senior leadership evolve over the recent years?

Tatum Thomas (TT): In recent years, the landscape of higher ed has undergone transformative evolution. There’s a shift in senior leadership’s perceptions and support. Despite fiscal challenges and demographic cliffs, there’s been a remarkable surge in buy-in that is primarily driven by a strategic understanding of the imperative to adapt and innovate in the face of challenges.

This evolution is a testament to the championing of shifts in norms within the higher education sector and the leaders who embrace these strategic paradoxes such as achieving greatness despite financial constraints and increasing enrollment. A culture of resilience and innovation has emerged. The greatest way that I’ve seen support for continuing ed and buy-in from leadership is that they are bought into the concept of innovation in this space. And they see the CE space as a highly nimble place. They appreciate the agility because it allows them to see returns with great haste. As leaders reckon with the challenges that higher ed faces, they know that limitations can be abated through entrepreneurial efforts in the continuing education space.

Evo: What are some challenges that CE continues to face when trying to get that support and buy-in?

TT: While there’s been significant progress in garnering support for CE initiatives and programs, challenges do persist. One notable obstacle is the resistance to change and forward-thinking strategies within institutional decision-making and operational structures. Despite the evident benefits of CE, some senior leaders may still be entrenched in traditional mindsets, hesitant to champion shifts and new norms.

This resistance underscores the importance of exercising that decisive honesty, where we confront institutional barriers with a clear-eyed assessment of growth and innovation potential. Additionally, there may be concerns about resource allocation and return on investments. By demonstrating the CE’s impact on institutional objectives and the broader community, we can effectively address these concerns and continue to secure buy-in to break down barriers. Education is akin to sculpting a masterpiece from a block of stone. Just as a sculptor wields its chisel to reveal the beauty hidden within the stone, we must use our strategic tools and policies to chip away at obstacles and unveil the potential within our units.

We must use policy as a catalyst and driver toward opportunity. That’s what CE units do well. They have had to navigate around many challenges, so they’re quite skilled at achieving strategic goals despite adversity. By embracing the analogy of chiseling away at the stone to reveal the beauty, we can really visualize the transformative power of navigating around policy to shape the future for our CE units. It’s about reframing CE as a supplement rather than a substitute for existing educational offerings. Leaders can then highlight its potential to enhance and complement our institutions’ academic reputations.

Evo: What are some best practices to help get buy-in from senior leadership to help scale and, most importantly, find resources for those CE initiatives?

TT: Securing buy-in from senior leadership necessitates a strategic collaborative approach that extends beyond the confines of the immediate unit. Leaders must emphasize how CE initiatives align with the university’s overarching mission and strategic goals to benefit not only the institution but sometimes external communities as well. By highlighting the broader impact of CE on student success, academic and institutional reputation, and community engagement, it’s a little easier to garner support from senior leadership. Those CE units that look for opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships across departments amplify the reach their initiatives will have. When there are cross-university or cross-college initiatives, it’s easier to drive sustainable growth and gain buy-in.

Considering the greater good for multiple stakeholders might help support the unit. Sometimes our work highly focuses on students, student outcomes and how we prepare learners for success. If we think more broadly about preparing individuals for success, our reach can then connect to others within our organizations such as faculty or units facing challenges. If we’re really invested in others’ success in their professions, it doesn’t matter if it’s an external student or an internal entity. We could be as invested in faculty members’ success to be able to partner with them to elevate the status and stature of what comes out of our CE units.

Evo: What impact does senior leadership’s support have on the CE unit?

TT: CE units are most successful when they understand that they are championing university success and multiple stakeholders in addition to the learners they serve. When we consider the impact, the senior leadership’s support is paramount to the success of CE units and their initiatives because it acknowledges the diverse needs of learners across different stages of their lives. When senior leadership champions CE, it signals to the institution a true commitment to lifelong learning and professional development. It recognizes the importance to catering to a multitude of learner types.

Senior leadership support enables CE units to scale and allocate resources to initiatives, effectively ensuring that they can address learners’ varied educational needs. And they do this by providing necessary resources, backing senior leaders and empowering CE programs to offer an array of opportunities. Those opportunities might extend beyond courses and programs. For instance, here at DePaul University, our provost, Salma Ghanem supports continuing and professional education by devoting centralized resources to CE activities.

There are also relationships with organizations, different corporations, workforce development, funding opportunities and grant opportunities. Many of those things can’t happen without senior leadership’s support. Senior leadership support also fosters innovation within the CE units. It helps them develop new approaches in the programs that help reach people in all stages of life. That support reinforces the institution’s commitment to and acknowledgement that diverse learners will have diverse needs at different times of their lives.

Evo: How do you see CE’s role within those institutional strategies evolving in the coming years?

TT: CE will be more and more essential to university strategies. We’re certainly seeing an elevation of what we know to be continuing professional education activities. We’re seeing a lot of the activity. And though it’s not organized, it will be in future. Not every institution needs to have a centralized unit, but the reliance on CE activities will be critical to university and organizational success.

Learners’ needs and preferences are changing. Not everyone wants a degree, and there’s waning confidence in a degree’s value. If people want varied options, CE units can and will deliver on needs. In the coming years, CE will undergo a significant evolution within institutional strategies driven by the dual forces of technological advancements and shifting workplace dynamics to proactively address these shifts to ensure the long-term success of our institutions internally.

Leaders must recognize the changing professional landscape for employees within the institution. Rapid technological advancements and global economic shifts demand upskilling and reskilling among faculty, staff, and administration. CE programs must be tailored to meet these evolving needs, but we must also train our internal teams and workforce to readily reskill and upskill.

Evo: Is there anything else you want to add about the state of continuing education?

TT: I want to note the notion of greater accountability, especially with the release of the Biden-Harris administration’s regulations on financial value and transparency and accountability and postsecondary education. Our institutions might have a slight internal competitive advantage. Some of our university counterparts could look at the ways many of our CE units measure success and outcomes to begin refining their models in light of the release.