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Stepping Back from the Cliff: Facing New Realities of Changing Student Demographics

The EvoLLLution | Stepping Back from the Cliff: Facing New Realities of Changing Student Demographics
Most universities that plan to stick to the status quo and serve exclusively traditional learners are facing a cliff. CE divisions can help their institutions avoid a potential drop, but only if they’re empowered.

Demographics of students enrolling at colleges and universities are evolving. And students’ expectations are evolving as well. As the numbers of 18-22 year olds fresh out of high school drop, the recruitment of non-traditional students is becoming more important than ever. In this interview, James Shaeffer discusses the role continuing education (CE) departments can play as drivers of innovation and reflects on how CE leaders can help their main campus colleagues embrace transformational change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is more attention being paid to continuing education (CE) than ever before? 

James Shaeffer (JS): One of the reasons, particularly for the non-elite institutions, is that we are not too many years away from the cliff—where we’re going to have a dramatic decline of undergraduate students. Kids are not graduating from high schools at the same rate as in the past. With the student population getting smaller, the competition for those students grows larger.

I recently read Ryan Craig’s A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College where the author argues that with the downturn in high school grads, the non-selective institutions are really going to be in peril. We need to focus our attention on adults, which is an audience that we have not been serving, or at least not as well as traditional undergraduates.

We’re seeing this in the competition for transfer students. This was a traditionally overlooked demographic in the past in Virginia, but suddenly universities across the state are turning their attention to this market. Now, we’re competing with Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia to enroll transfer students. These universities are showing that there’s a need to look beyond demographics we have traditionally served.

Secondly, the rapid changes in technology and the skills needed to be successful in the workplace are making CE’s expertise in staying up to date with market trends critical. We have the proven ability to design, develop and deliver programming to meet fast-changing labor market demands. To remain competitive, it’s essential for universities to start with the employer and then work backwards to program development.

Finally, we live in a fluid society. Those living in the U.S. move more often than anyone else in the world. We also change careers on much more frequently. This means workers’ learning needs are evolving rapidly, to help them fit into their new environments. It’s essential for us to reach that audience where they are with what they need in the format they want to consume it.

Evo: Which types of institutions would you consider particularly vulnerable to the student demographic shifts? And which types are safe?

JS: I would say the elite institutions—the Ivy League universities, highly-selective state flagships, etc.—are always going to be sought out by elite high school students. There’s a next tier of selective institutions, large publics chief among them, that are not going to be completely safe from this, but also are not in a “severe risk” territory.

But these “slightly selective” universities—be they public or private—are absolutely at risk due to declining numbers of traditional learners. I was having a conversation with the provost of a large Jesuit private institution, and I asked, “What concerns you?”

The last thing I expected to hear from him was, “I’m concerned about the cliff. I am concerned about the fact that we’re going to see shrinking numbers of high school graduates.” Seeing a successful and highly mission-driven university, like a Jesuit institution, express concerns along these lines is indeed worrying.

Evo: From your perspective as a CE leader, how do strong CE divisions benefit their home institutions and deliver some of that competitive advantage and differentiation?

JS: I marvel at the lack of urgency across many campuses in responding to the reality of the traditional undergraduate enrollment cliff. Conversely, if you go into any CE unit, you’re going to walk into a constant sense of urgency. It’s because we’re in a market-driven environment.

Because of that mindset, we benefit our institutions through serving as their R&D division. If you look at the history of CE, we have been out there doing things that main campuses don’t typically pay attention to. A great example is serving adult students. There was a time when somebody with grey hair walking into the classroom as a student was shocking, but CE reached out to and embraced that population. Now the main campus is seeing those adults as an unserved market that requires attention and agrressively reaching out to them.

CE departments were also the first to incorporate eLearning and bootcamps into our programming. Similarly, we found a solution to delivering courses in a compressed fashion by creating eight-week curriculums. Now, institutions are seeing these tactics as valuable to helping all students complete their degrees in a timely fashion.

The key for me as a CE leader is assuring main campuses that our programming adds value to the home institution.

Evo: It’s interesting how a lot of these major innovations coming out of CE are evolving into standard practices on main campuses. It raises the question, is there a potential role for continuing education to help different faculties adjust to better serve a non-traditional audience?

JS: We are seeing this already! We’re seeing administrator titles emerging like Chief Innovation Officer, with job descriptions closely mapping to those of deans of CE. This is because institutions are looking for people that are going to develop a new curriculum and reach new audiences.

This desire for innovation is critical for competitiveness, and now we’re even seeing it at a system level, not just within individual institutions. There are situations where multiple institutions within the state are trying to do distance learning and develop programming, with a good deal of investment at each institution. How do we centralize that? By centralizing the processes and the programs, the hope is that you can be more competitive with the major online players, like Penn State World Campus or Colorado State University-Global Campus.

In order be viable, we as CE leaders need to provide value to the institution by taking the reins on campus, particularly in terms of the changing demographics of our students and alumni.

Evo: If CE divisions were to become more central to the institution, would it be possible to maintain the innovative spirit that came from operating on the periphery?

JS: The maintenance of the innovative spirit comes down to how much courage there is among senior leadership. We can come in and develop programs and serve new audiences. But the rubber really meets the road when it comes time to have the courage to allow leaders of non-traditional divisions to develop innovative degree programs. After all, that’s where there’s going to be pushback from faculty because faculty roles are going to have to change. There’s going to be pushback from support units because you’re no longer fitting nicely into a 15-week semester, and therefore we’re pushing the systems that aren’t built to allow that kind of flexibility.

Either CE will be allowed to make these fundamental changes or we’ll maintain the status quo. That’s when you’re going to see CE units either shrink or go away and potentially miss the opportunity for university growth and innovation.

But we have so many great examples now, where senior echelons of the institution have facilitated these innovative transformations, with Purdue, Arizona State and Penn State chief among them. They evolved their service delivery and enrollment practices accordingly to realize this new vision.

On the other hand, when you reach out to request start and stop dates for classes for a customer and the answer is, “No. You have to start at these specific dates, even though your customers say they want other dates,” you’re in a world of hurt.

Evo: What advice would you give other CE leaders who are trying have some impact on the strategic organization and direction of their institutions?

JS: I’m reminded of a saying by one of our colleagues at Berkeley. He used to say, “Lots of people want to jump the claim. But very few know how to work the mine.”

It’s up to us to show the value we bring into working the mine. We, more than anything, have to reflect the mission of the institution, and how we are fulfilling that mission.

We need to build champions across the campus that are going to be supportive of us. I’ve watched more than one institution where even though the president or the provost agreed to implement changes, there were pockets in the institution that remained resistant. And ultimately those change-minded institutional leaders deferred to faculty happiness, which isn’t a positive thing for CE.

We need to start producing business plans to more clearly show the value of change. We need to clearly show the return over time that will be produced by an investment.

Finally, we as professionals need to do a better job of sharing what works—and not only amongst ourselves, but by finding outlets to get us on the map. We need to continue to grow the profession and to mature the profession. We need to show why CE is important and that we add value to the student and institution.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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