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How Senior Executives Can Champion Lifelong Learning

With CE units playing a more significant part of the overall institution, they need senior leadership buy-in to create, develop and implement quality programming that meet student and workforce needs.

Embracing change is most effective when it originates from the top down, and securing senior support is a gradual process that you cannot rush. However, investing the necessary efforts to obtain this support can cultivate a change-oriented culture, benefiting both the institution and its learners. In this interview, James Hedges discusses the evolution of support for continuing education, the challenges that continue to arise and how to create a community of change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In our report, we saw a 15% increase over the past two years in support and buy-in for continuing education. How have you seen support for continuing ed and buy-in from leadership evolve in recent years?

James hedges (JH): There’s the larger landscape of higher ed and then my own experience. I started at Weber State two years ago, but prior to that I was in charge of innovation and professional and continuing education at another institution. That institution was very reluctant to innovate to meet changing demographics’ needs for higher education. As a result, I moved into my current role, and I couldn’t feel more supported to innovate.

That’s a mindset passed down from senior leadership. There was a need to do things differently to serve our students and fulfill our equity mission. In order to meet students where they’re at, we had to change things up. These learners have different needs, and change is scary, but our leadership is very open to engaging in the conversation. We’re actively talking about and executing on things like stackable credentials and employer partnerships because we understand that bachelor degrees aren’t the only currency in higher ed. So, it’s been a big shift.

Evo: What are some challenges that CE continues to face when getting that support?

JH: It certainly varies across institutions. There’s a general perception that CE units either do community education or serve employers and industry. It takes a lot of time to change the perception of CE, since they don’t do exactly what traditional higher ed does.

The shared governance model is slow, which can make it hard to keep pace with the changing landscape of higher ed. Looking at the technological advances we’re encountering right now, we are not set up structurally or operationally to be nimble or adaptive to market trends. We must take a hard look at how we can be more responsive, and that requires looking at some of our governance models. How do we balance resource constraints, which a lot of us in higher ed are facing, versus investments in innovation? Many things people see as the future of higher education are innovations that require capital investments.

Schools and leaders investing in innovative models and failing fast and failing forward will be better positioned to meet the future demands of our students and ultimately the workforce. It’ll be interesting to see how that balance plays out across higher education.

Evo: What are some best practices higher ed leaders can take to get buy-in from senior leadership, scale their CE initiatives and get the resources to implement them?

JH: Every CE unit is different, and most have been in the game of serving adult learners and nontraditional students for a while. As a result, we are very attuned to adult learner needs like affordable, accelerated and flexible options.

To be equitable, we must provide opportunities and access that allow them to fit education around their busy lives. They’re no longer able to prioritize education over family and work. In my opinion, we need industry partnerships to ensure consistent revenue streams and provide the off-ramps from the institution to the workforce. These partnerships will take on greater importance as we look to create educational pathways that lead to workforce readiness and success. Our students are older and more diverse, which means these pathways need additional support systems for our students to successfully engage with their education and transition into the workforce.

Evo: What impact does the senior leadership support have on the CE unit and your initiatives?

JH: I just came out of a leadership team meeting, and there is a palpable sense of confidence in our division that didn’t exist before. Having the senior leadership’s support has had a massive cultural impact for the positive. There is an established sense of credibility that we aren’t operating in a silo or doing something only partially related to the rest of campus. There is a renewed sense that we are central to what the university does and are partnering and collaborating with colleges, other administrative units and departments to really meet our future students’ needs.

There’s a collective sense of mission, and our leaders have provided a very clear vision of where we’re going. Now we’re executing on our goals and moving faster down the road than we expected. As the innovative and entrepreneurial arm of the institution, we have a sense that we can fail without judgment. We’re able to take risks, learn new things, then pivot. The impact has been significant both materially and symbolically, at least from what I’ve witnessed at my institution.

Evo: How do you see CE evolving along with institutional strategy in the coming years?

JH: Many senior leaders are grappling with this as demographics change and they realize that old models aren’t going to get it done. Modern learners expect a return on investment—that their education immediately applies to their work and career. That is a responsibility we need to take seriously if we are going to set our students up for success in the future.

The evolution of higher ed goes back to the iron triangle: access, cost and quality from an online standpoint. Cost has always been a concern and will always be a key consideration for adult learners. The pandemic really opened up access but also brought up quality concerns. Online quality will be key to ensuring that the same online learning environments that opened up access also provide dynamic, media-rich content. These quality online learning environments also require different support services that most universities aren’t set up for.

So, to meet these needs, we need to take a hard look at our models. For many schools, there will be a major negotiation: How much can you invest in innovation while maintaining some sense of operational efficiency? For some, legislative dollars are required, which at times can inhibit innovation. I’m curious to see how schools navigate that and find the balance.

Evo: How do you see this model shifting?

JH: We’ve always provided quality educational experiences, but I don’t think we’ve always been great at providing an articulated pathway that starts before college. With acceleration opportunities, we’re seeing more dual and concurrent enrollment. We must consider what these pathways look like for early college students while bridging the gap between higher ed and the workforce.

It’s important to see where degrees lead—cul-de-sacs or superhighways? That’s something that requires better communication and collaboration with industry partners and employers to determine the competencies that will make students successful. Quality in the future means clear communication and stackable options that can accelerate pathways and provide applicable knowledge.

More and more, students have to be able to navigate home, work and education. It’s the direction our world is going in, aligning with technological advances, communication technologies and overall conveniences.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JH: Everyone is at a different place when it comes to the role CE plays at their institution. That’s going to get blurrier because we’ve always dealt with adult students who have now become mainstream. It is my belief that the universities that approach CE as a partner—and not as a separate entity of the operation—will find more success in the future.