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Continuing Ed as the Strategic Imperative for Community Colleges

Community colleges aren’t used to distance education, and the pandemic has forced them to rethink their infrastructure around it. It isn’t an easy step to take, but once you begin to reshape distance program offerings, your institution will reap the rewards. In this interview, Carlos Cortez discusses common challenges among community colleges when it comes to scaling non-credit programs, what it takes to create these offerings, and how to high learner expectations. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the challenges that community colleges face to manage and scale non-credit program access?

Carlos Cortez (CC): The primary challenge that San Diego Continuing Education has faced is the lack of infrastructure around distance education, particularly in light of the COVID-19 closures and having to move our program remotely, this reality has set in. When I arrived in July 2015, we had zero courses fully online. When COVID hit, about 10% of our course offerings were delivered in a hybrid or web-enhanced format. But still, zero programs were fully online. That said, we have been working for the past five years to launch a fully online division of our institution. The launch of ICOM Academy—the Interactive Competency-based Online Micro-credentialing Academy—coincided with the COVID crisis and propelled our institution forward. It pushed resistors in our institution toward embracing a paradigm shift in delivering adult non-credit.

The underlying challenge we’ve faced is that the majority of our career technical education programs have historically been offered in-person. Credit programs tend to be lighter on theory and heavier on applied laboratory learning and modalities. Those learning experiences are difficult to replicate online. People come to our campus and report that our facilities are par none, so why would a student want to take the class outside of that real world, state-of-the-art environment?

When we launched ICOM Academy, the expectation was that we were going to identify career educational programs that lent themselves to distance education. Now, we are moving programs like automotive, child development and healthcare into ICOM Academy’s phase one year, which was initially unthinkable. It costs approximately $50,000 to develop each course, and there are no resources available to us in our existing system to support us. 

The second challenge is that all of our student services were historically offered in a brick-and-mortar format. Now, again with COVID-19 closures, we have increased interest in accessing the dynamic student services platform that we have built for the courses at ICOM Academy across all of our programs. When we return to some form of in-person classes, 90 to 95% of courses will likely be web-enhanced. Not only are we replicating every brick-and-mortar student experience online, we are adding new student services on our campuses. 

We plan to create access to fee-based courses to those who live outside of the state of California, generating revenue that will then be reinvested into ICOM Academy to cover our subscriptions for 40-plus student services, tools and resources currently totalling over two million dollars annually. 

A third challenge is that, because of the financial strains placed on districts, we are being forced to reduce traditional non-credit course offerings. As a result, many faculty members are being displaced. By adding fee-based education courses, we now can hire both counselors and faculty to teach these course sections.

Evo: What does it take to create highly-accessible non-credit offerings?

CC: Every state in the United States has an education trainer provider list (ETPL). These lists are composed of approved educational programs. Clients of public social welfare programs, like housing authorities, veterans’ services, employment/development offices and workforce partnerships, provide stipends to engage in educational development. Often these students are looking for immediate opportunities to enroll in school. They walk into one of these social welfare providers and get approved for educational training. Due to the way community colleges are structured, there are not always multiple points of entry for a student to be able to begin classes immediately.

The reality is that they need to get into a class as quickly as possible—they do not want to wait, nor should they wait, until the course officially starts in an academic semester. By developing fee-based course offerings, there will be multiple points of entry into our organization. Within California, some individuals might have the state-provided resources to enroll in fee-based courses, but our intention is to enroll nationally and internationally. When I was at UCLA education extension, we offered similar types of programming. We went nationwide and international, and none of the programs we offered received any form of state apportionment. As a state university, fee-based offerings to the extension program were not funded in any way through the state, so they had to be self-sustaining, which is the same case with the fee-based course offerings we are expanding.

Community colleges have not historically engaged in this marketplace. Many community colleges offer fee-based courses, but they offer them in partnership with third-party providers. These are companies that come in and provide fee-based courses through community colleges. Community college students think they are enrolling in my college, but they are actually not. We are simply an intermediary, and we get paid a small fee to place students in these third-party courses.

We want to blow up this model with the assumption that we can actually provide quality educational programming that meets or exceeds what is currently in the marketplace across all these higher education systems, and at a better price.

There is a level of inconsistency across the US because every state’s system is different. There are some states, for example, where community colleges do not receive apportionment. Even credit or non-credit offerings have to be fully self-sustainable. It is worth noting that nomenclature varies as well. What one state might call credit or not-for-credit or non-credit or fee-based or contract education might have different meanings in a different system, so it is understandable that there is confusion among offerings. In our case, we are creating new self-sustaining course sections. They are in no way connected to our state apportionment-generating courses.

Evo: How are you guys working to deliver the experience that students are looking for without placing a huge burden on staff to scramble to bring together things from five or six different places to create that feel? 

CC: My experience as a user does not mirror that of users of public education. When I attended these institutions, I was given the red carpet treatment,  from orientation to enrollment to wraparound supports on campus. These institutions, particularly proprietary institutions, are designed around the client/user. It is unfortunate that public educational institutions have not grasped this reality because we are losing enrollments to organizations that are able to make these processes more seamless.

The work that we are doing with ICOM Academy, enhanced and accelerated by the COVID-19 closures, has moved us light years ahead. We have found ways to remove many of these obstacles. Students are not required to come onto campus to use support and resources. We are positioning our organization to be increasingly student-centered, and that is in direct response to our competitors who have already figured out how to do this work.

The challenge lies in the fact that we are large government bureaucratic institutions, and with those types of entities come a significant amount of red tape. I challenge myself to reinvent how we do our business before we go extinct because there will be others in the next ten years who will figure it out and do it for a cheaper price. And frankly, I have found that students are willing to pay a premium if their institution meets them where they are at.

Evo: Is there anything that you’d like to add about making continuing ed a strategic imperative?

CC: We are at a crossroad in higher education at this moment. We just had a meeting this past week with a major public entity in San Diego positioned to lay off 200 employees by December. These individuals have a strong work ethic, education credentials, resumes. They have shown an interest in caring for themselves and their families without relying on state assistance. These are only 200 of the millions of hardworking Americans who are finding themselves in this situation right now, yet when we look at how our systems are designed, there is minimal to no investment toward providing rapid pathways for these individuals to move back into new career pathways.

Here in the state of California, only about 3% of our overall full-time equivalent student-funded apportionment is allocated to short-term non-credit career education, and that startles me. Within that, many do not lead to livable wages. It is a low percentage of the resources that we make available that provides free robust career education pathways to students. I would challenge our legislature to identify additional resources and to provide them to the states that find the 5 or 10% increase in apportionment. But to also hold the colleges accountable by solely putting the money toward developing short-term career education pathways, so the United States gets back to work.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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