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How Continuing Education Divisions Can Help Their Institutions Thrive in the New Economy

The EvoLLLution | How Continuing Education Divisions Can Help Their Institutions Thrive in the New Economy
As the economy shifts from industrial to information, workers will require higher education that enables them to reskill and adapt to changing job markets.
The economic shift from an industrial to an information-based economy has ramifications across all segments of society, including higher education. While some universities will survive the transition to this new economic model, argues Arthur Levine, forward-thinking administrators must turn to those who are already subject matter experts on innovation and disruption on campus: continuing educators.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have the market conditions and demographics in higher education changed?

Arthur Levine (AL): Higher education’s market conditions are changing in several extremely impactful ways.

First, our economies are shifting from a national/analog/industrial model to global/digital/information economies. Our higher education system was created for the former, not the latter, which means we are going to have to adjust the higher education system to fit this emerging economic model. In this new economy, “low-education” jobs are going to disappear, while jobs requiring much more education will emerge. As a result, postsecondary education is going to be a requirement for the overwhelming majority of our citizenry.

Second, this new economy will require different skills and a higher level of knowledge. Today, employers want to hire workers with 21st-century skills: the ability to work in teams; critical thinking; digital media; working in more diverse climates. People will need an education that equips them with those skill sets, which will require higher standards on the part of our schools and educational institutions.

Evo: What do these changes mean for more traditionally minded colleges and universities?

AL: Our system of higher education was created in an industrial economy and was designed around the successful technology of the industrial era: the assembly line. For a very long time, it was a successful system that prepared individuals for long-term careers with single employers; but its industrial origins mean that higher education as it stands today reflects the industrial focus on common processes, common time, and variable outcomes.

In information economies, these factors turn on their heads. Information economies stress common outcomes, while processes and time become variable factors.

That’s going to radically change the nature of higher education: It means that we are going to focus increasingly on learning rather than teaching. We’re going to move towards an outcomes-focused, learning-based curriculum, rather than a system that bases itself on credits accumulated or time spent in the classroom.

At the same time, automation is going to fundamentally disrupt the job market. A recent Canadian study showed that at least 50 percent of all Canadian jobs in the next decade will be substantially impacted by automation, with the majority of job loss related to automation. This isn’t just going to impact low-income factory jobs: any routine work is likely to be automated in the years to come. Between that and how quickly technology is advancing, we’re going to need upskilling and reskilling throughout our lives to remain vital in the workplace and the world.

That’s going to change what people ask of higher education. In the past, people wanted time to pursue learning that led to degrees; now, people look to higher education for just-in-time learning. Students are saying, “By next Thursday, teach me a new computer language.”

Within the next several years, the number of people seeking just-in-time learning will overshadow those going to college for traditional degrees.

Evo: What are the long-term prospects for institutions that don’t adapt to deliver shorter-term programming and workforce-oriented outcomes?  

AL: Institutions in the Northeast, Midwest and Middle Atlantic states—where demographics show there are too many colleges and not enough students to fill the spaces—are going to face very difficult times if they don’t adapt.

That said, the last time we went through a revolution of this sort was when our nations went from agrarian to industrial societies, and the institutions we had at that time–the small liberal arts colleges with classical curricula—didn’t all disappear. Some of those demographically challenged institutions will survive, and others will thrive. These are likely to be the wealthier, more selective institutions. The less selective, low-endowment institutions are highly at risk.

Evo: How do you expect to see credentialing evolve as we become more focused on labor market outcomes, short-term programs, and demand responsiveness? Will the degree maintain its primacy or will we start to see more credentialing options available to students?

AL: As we move towards just-in-time learning, the certification of people achieving those ends will come not in the form of degrees, but as microcredentials, badges and other types of credentialing.

Are degrees endangered? I don’t think they’ll disappear immediately, but I do think they’ll be less prominent. Microcredentials will become the more important designation.

For this to happen, though, we need to have some commonality in definitions around microcredentials. We need to gravitate towards common definitions of what competencies in any given area might mean, and what a microcredential certifies. We need those common standards of assessment.

In moving towards microcredentials and away from degrees, new educational providers will become an increasing prominent part of the higher ed landscape. For example, one has to ask: Would I rather have a programming certification from Microsoft or from a state regional university?

New kinds of providers will see an opportunity to provide these new kinds of credentials, which will inevitably expand the space that we currently call postsecondary education.

Evo: How can non-traditional divisions that are currently focused on shorter term credentials and being market responsive help their main campuses evolve to serve the modern learner?

AL: It’s really important to understand the role that continuing education units have traditionally played within universities. Innovation in higher education gradually moves from the least selective, most endangered institutions, because they’re desperate to build enrollment, to the more selective institutions. In the most selective institutions, innovation doesn’t enter through traditional faculties. Continuing education, as the least valued, least selective unit within these universities, is generally the venue by which new ideas enter the university.

For most colleges and universities, CE acts as an innovation laboratory. It’s a place to test ideas and see if they work, and diffuse those ideas that do work through the rest of the university.

Discriminating presidents have to recognize the importance of CE unit and its role in bringing innovation to the broader campus.

It’s also critical for CE to voice its value. These departments have largely operated under the radar because they don’t want to be seen as competition to traditional units. In reality, though, these units have the knowledge to be the campus experts on the future of higher education. They’ll have to assert their authority to educate the rest of the campus on strategies to meet new challenges and find innovative ways to serve non-traditional students.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the role that continuing ed divisions can play in creating this kind of robust, responsive and transformative postsecondary ecosystem?

AL: Continuing educators are more aware at the moment about the ways in which they’re being slighted than about their capacity to reshape the nature of higher education. They don’t realize the extent to which continuing education will drive the future of postsecondary learning.

These educators can’t be afraid to be the authority on innovation. Most campuses aren’t going to realize this on their own: CE will have to reach out. They’re going to have to educate other departments on the possibilities of non-traditional innovation, which means using every formal and informal occasion to meet with their traditional campus counterparts. It means inviting faculty from around the university to participate in their programs; it means holding lunches, breakfasts and drinks. They’re going to have to take the lead in shaping tomorrow and being a voice that people on campus listen to and trust.

They’re the ones that see how the industry is going to be impacted by economic, demographic and market shifts. That’s invaluable intelligence for any university looking to the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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