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Ignore the Mirage and Follow the Data: Eight Suggestions to Help Us Recover from COVID-19 Enrollment Shock

The EvoLLLution | Ignore the Mirage and Follow the Data: Eight Suggestions to Help Us Recover from COVID-19 Enrollment Shock
Higher education’s enrollment rates are not guaranteed by recession; it’s essential to make conscious and focused business decisions—rather than panicked trend-based decisions—to ensure we can weather this storm.

International travel has stopped, and new international enrollment has all but evaporated. Domestic students have diminished cash flow. Revenue streams are running dry. Across North America, universities are thirsty and desperate to increase their enrollment numbers.  

There is another stream: adult learners. Serving this critical audience well will provide universities sustained success into the future. Adults learners are a mystery to some, but so are to me the approaches through which some universities try to attract them. We will not find this stream by stumbling toward the mirage of trendy tactics like badging, new micro-credentials, MOOCs or their offspring proprietary micro-credentials (like MicroMasters® and Nanodegrees).

Finding this stream and understanding how it is likely to flow in these new times requires us to analyze the data. How did adult enrollments flow in previous recessions? What are the best practices for capturing these enrollments?

If we do this well, we can build a stronger eco-system to support workforce development in our new economy. Doing it well requires carefully envisioning our destination. It requires us proceeding thoughtfully rather than racing to the nearest mirage.

But the mirage is so enticing! The quick. The easy. The new and trendy. You can present about your new MicroMasters® at a conference and be the envy of your peers. Or maybe not. I’ve seen it—schools spending a ton of money and getting two masters students to enroll (as an afterthought, nonetheless). We can no longer afford this.

No one knows how long the pandemic will last, how long travel will be limited, or if anything will ever return to what we thought was normal. But we do know how people behave in a recession. There are two audiences, both arguably adults, likely to return to university: recent graduates and unemployed workers. Research reveals about 6% of unemployed workers return to full-time university studies. 

There are real potential enrollment streams that aren’t a mirage masking ineffective and unadulterated spending that we can no longer afford. We must do things differently.  

Here are eight guideposts to help us define and focus our thinking in order to survive the coming drought:

1. Stop chasing shiny objects

Each decade seems to have its shiny object. Last decade, MOOCs were supposed to disrupt the industry. Universities jumped in blindly.  They spent a quarter million or more per course. MOOCs didn’t live up to their disruptor hype. Today MOOC providers are struggling to find a place for their work as either a content library for undergraduate courses or as a discount-brand continuing education provider.

This decade has a new M-word: micro-credential. For the last couple of years, it has been hard to get through a conversation on campus without someone using the new M-word. Dare to ask what “micro-credential” means, and you get a shrug, a blank look, the name of a MOOC trademark or reference to digital badging. But suddenly everyone wants in. Has FOMO superseded strategy.  

Let’s think carefully about whether this shiny object will drive enrollment, reputation and revenue while serving a social and economic need. Otherwise, shiny objects are just a good way to let money slip away.

Are micro-credentials (meaning continuing education programs) likely to see an increase in demand during a COVID-driven recession? Although it might be intuitive to think adults will choose short, fast and inexpensive credentials, it is hard to know. It didn’t happen in Canada during the Great Recession. According to unpublished annual member reports from Canadian Association of University Continuing Education (CAUCE) between 2008 and 2010, there was not an increase in continuing education enrollment. In fact, a few provinces (British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec) fared quite poorly.  

This recession is different—potentially deeper, longer and more complex. There are also more options for adult learners (e.g., Bootcamp and MOOC providers), so we will need to work hard to drive demand and differentiation.

 2. Stop making up new credentials

 I’ve also seen the temptation to make up new micro-credential names. This is dangerous to our sector. Non-degree university credentials are already very poorly understood.

Universities have been issuing micro-credentials for over a century. They are simply post-secondary credentials that are smaller than a degree or diploma. The most common is the certificate. Yet, despite their long-standing history, certificates continue to be misunderstood by prospective students or employers.  

Why? Because they are too varied. A certificate can mean everything from “I sat in a chair at a workshop for a day or two” to the very different “I took a dozen extremely rigorous courses and achieved specific learning outcomes relative to standards at the undergraduate or graduate level.”  

In the U.S. alone, Credential Engine has documented almost 740,000 different unique credentials. This is deeply confusing.  

In Canada and the U.S., unlike many countries, we lack a national credential framework that would make the meaning of credentials clear to all. Without that, and knowing the confusion we’ve caused, we should at least maintain normative and consistent credential standards. 

3. Start badging with caution

If students and employers are already confused by our 740,000 credentials, do we think that throwing a multitude of different digital badges into the mix will help? Digital badges have great potential to verify levels of competency with integrity. To be most useful, we need a consistent approach, perhaps using a standard skills taxonomy tied to labour market data. We aren’t there yet.

4. Stop obsessing over tactics

Instead, start with the problem and find the compelling “why.”  What does the adult market need as we head into what may be the deepest and longest recession of our lifetimes? What do our employers need to reboot a virus-ravaged economy? Tactics follow strategy. Let us build strategy that will serve.

5. Start to ramp up capacity in graduate programs

Full-time and part-time professional master’s programs directly tied to jobs, especially ones in fields where there were skills gaps already, may see an increase in demand. Some fields will be in even greater need in the post-COVID world. While we await more data about what those might be, we can certainly focus on the obvious needs for professionals in healthcare, biomedical sciences, supply chain and online retailing.

6. Start to build capacity in online courses for the long haul

Online capacity isn’t just important because of the social distancing component of the pandemic. During the Great Recession, online enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs grew in double digits, according to CAUCE reports.  

7. Start to increase engagement with employers

Employers’ needs are evolving. Are we fully engaged to continually re-align learning objectives, curriculum and work-integrated learning opportunities to these evolving needs?

8. Start to embrace best practices

We need to be more open to adopting best practices in credential quality and connectedness.  We’ve talked about it for ages. Now is the time to push forward with the modularity, stackability, portability, relevance and transparency of our credentials. Learners need to be able to use them to signal their competencies to employers and other credential consumers (including us). We need to build a stronger, more transparent and more useful credential system to support students and employers.

It’s up to us to define our future

As an industry, we are at a pivotal juncture. We can leverage willingness for change to improve the transparency and relevance of our credentials. We can leverage this crisis and advocate for government to act on national skills strategies, credential frameworks and skills taxonomies. 

Or, we can make it far worse by proliferating more varied credentials and not building capacity where it is needed. 

The choice is ours. A crisis challenges our leadership in many ways. It also provides opportunity. Let us use this opportunity to think strategically, collectively and in the long term. Ignore the mirage. Let’s build a stronger future together.

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