The Critical Role CE Leaders Can Play in the Transformation of Main Campus Institutions
Continuing education (CE)—the all-encompassing term that takes in a broad spectrum of postsecondary learning activities and programs—may be the most nuanced and least understood sector in higher education today.
CE can be organized under any number of designations: continuing education division, continuing education unit, professional studies, extension school or college. It may confer professional continuing education units, serve as a portal to the university’s credit offerings in the other schools and colleges in the institution or it may confer its own college credits and degrees. Many are self-sustaining and self-funded and more often than not, many CE entities in public colleges and universities receive no state support at all.
Typically perceived on the fringes of the main campus and serving non-traditional students, continuing education’s role is rapidly changing as higher education evolves and transforms into a new reality. This reality is marked by an environment where the flow of new students has started to slow and the presence of the now clichéd non-traditional student is expanding.
In actuality, most learners in higher education institutions now fit the non-traditional profile and are described by many as the “contemporary” student. While the student market of 18- 22-year-olds has been the lifeblood of many institutions, the majority of students in higher education currently are older and in various stages of their career. This shift toward the former non-traditional learner is significant in a number of ways. With a 63-percent increase in college tuition and fees since January 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many question the time commitment, convenience and value proposition associated with the traditional main campus pathways. Simultaneously, according to Eduventures 2016 Adult Learner Survey Data, the interest among adults in conventional higher education is edging downward while interest in alternative credentials and modes of delivery is growing, with many non-profit schools seeing only modest growth in adult enrollment.
Consider the financial state of higher education today. Clearly, the trends aren’t promising as higher education as a whole is attempting to cope with slow growth and more public focus on the cost of tuition and student debt.
Moody’s Investor Services recently issued its 2016 outlook for American colleges and universities. They report that pockets of stress will persist with 20 percent of public and private universities experiencing weak or declining revenue growth owing to limited pricing flexibility and less than strong student demand. Noting that “low-hanging fruit” cost reductions have been taken by many colleges, with further additional cuts likely to result in heightened contentions on many campuses, Moody’s doubts “the likelihood that the cultural inertia and defensiveness that characterizes the climate on many American campuses will support tough budgetary decisions.”
These new realities embed continuing education at the center of the struggle for institutional sustainability. This role is not simply as a support function or an extension of the institution, but is essential in maintaining institutional viability. The continuing education business model combines expertise in analyzing market demand and a keen understanding of the needs of the contemporary student together with the entrepreneurial adroitness all too often missing on many main campuses. The new reality requires that the CE leader play a fundamental role in the university’s core strategy.
CE leadership know-how might serve as a paradigm for main campus leaders. Taking on fiscal responsibility in order to enhance fiscal viability, the effective CE leader has a market-aware and forward-looking mindset and is acutely conscious of the new higher education consumer economy. Equipped with a skill set and knowledge base beyond that of main campus academic leadership—who often comes up through the ranks of the discipline-focused professoriate—the CE leader is (and must be) an academic entrepreneur. That is, an academic leader possessing a responsibility-centered management savvy and a bottom-line mentality that can help drive institutional sustainability in a fiercely competitive environment.
Among the differences between an academic mindset and an entrepreneurial mindset is the willingness to deploy and adapt quickly to the changing environment. This agility means taking risks and seizing opportunities and creating a culture that innovates, collaborates and solves problems.
It’s not surprising that the continuing education arm of many institutions has been the incubator for new credentialing programming, the institutional conduit for online and blended learning, the prime mover in program development in emerging fields and the driver of new ways to deliver college credit (e.g., competency-based education options). Continuing education leaders, to a greater extent than many of their main campus counterparts, have been out front in understanding that the contemporary student is more likely to demand an education that works for each student in a time, place and learning method that best serves each student’s need.
In an era when many students now see education as a commodity and themselves as consumers, the CE skillset and mindset can be the linchpin in the struggle to deal with the challenges posed by this new reality. A good start would be to adopt a CE-like, responsibility-centered management approach for main campus academic units. This bottom line model of budgeting, under which revenue-generating units are wholly responsible for managing their own revenues and expenditures, would provide academic unit leaders with greater authority and accountability. For some, this would encourage the kind of entrepreneurial and innovative revenue-enhancing initiatives most often seen in CE units.
Academics and entrepreneurs, while having discrete characteristics, should not be considered necessarily at odds, but as inherently connected. An example of this bond can be seen in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. The IE consortium vision views academics as “innovators” and “agents of change moving the mission of institutions of higher learning from “advancing the frontiers of knowledge” who are responsible for “preparing tomorrow’s leaders” to “serve as engines of economic and social development.”
In that respect, CE leaders might play the role of collaborator and intra-institutional partner with the main campus academic unit leadership. CE would serve as a partner in supporting, developing and promoting online degree and certificate programs, boot camps, corporate training programs, digital badges and professional certifications. Particularly for academic units that are resource-starved, the CE unit can play a central role in faculty support and market research for new programming. Revenue sharing between the main campus academic unit and the CE unit can provide an incentive and the needed resources for the main campus unit to innovate, grow and bolster its research initiatives.
For those who might see this as commodifying the higher education experience, and relinquishing the commitment to student success, it can be argued that there is a close link between the CE mindset and the drive for student success. Leveraging new learning technologies that allow students to study at a time and place that works for them exemplifies the CE mindset of understanding student needs and market demand. This student focused mindset and willingness to adapt to changing mores can certainly be considered fundamental in producing outcomes such as increased retention and graduation rates.
Having the will to redesign programs around the new realities presented by the contemporary student also means adopting new credentialing options. CE has long been in the business of alternative credentialing, and while baccalaureate degrees have been the coin of the realm, main campus academic leaders will come to accept that institution-wide shorter-term programs focused exclusively on skill building can lead to student success outcomes such as employability of graduates, helping first-generation or low-income students, and affording students access to a high-quality education. The continuing education unit can work hand-in-hand with the main campus in developing a workforce-oriented strategy aligning academic offerings with workforce development needs.
Given the new realities, and with an understanding that higher education is inevitably being shaped by the demands of the contemporary student, a compelling case can be made on the critical role that CE leadership must play in an ever-changing higher education landscape. Incorporating the CE academic entrepreneurial mindset into main campus thinking—without compromising the integrity of the mission and the values of the institution—can be realized.
Author Perspective: Administrator