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Learning From Disruption to Thrive Using Continuing Education

Continuing Education has consistently faced waves of disruption by listening to student and community needs and responding to them quickly. This is critical to follow as skepticism in the value of higher education is at a high.

Continuing Education has been offering nontraditional programming for decades and become the experts on the subject. Even with the disruption of the pandemic, it’s critical for CE (and the institution as a whole) to continue leveraging this type of programming moving forward. But with increasing demand for a digital world, higher ed will need to make a shift. In this interview, Joe Cassidy discusses how CE has evolved over the past decade, the fundamentals of delivering modern learner programming and trends we can expect to see in the next five years.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the CE environment evolved, not only in the past couple years due to COVID-19 but generally in the past decade?

Joe Cassidy (JC): In many ways, continuing education (CE) has stayed on a steady trajectory before and throughout COVID-19 by being the place where colleges and universities experiment with new curricula. It’s the unit wherein faculty teach things that don’t quite fit their degree courses and they can serve a broader audience. So, CE has remained the go-to place for personal enrichment courses across all disciplines.

It’s also continued to grow as a provider of professional development, expanding its role as a corporate college that offers contract training for companies. But it’s also increasingly the place where individual employees turn for pre- and post-degree training and learning that either helps them enter or advance in a career. For us, Youth Academy is a great place to introduce middle school and high schoolers to potential careers. On the post-degree side, it’s a place where people come back to get a project management certificate or to study Lean Six Sigma to continue their professional growth.

Evo: How have learners’ needs, especially within CE, changed over this past decade?

JC: I’ll assume here that our regional demographics are quite similar to the rest of the country. Our population is aging and becoming more diverse. The funnel of traditional college-aged students is shrinking. At the same time, competition among colleges and universities is increasing. In fact, some 50% of our students leave to attend college outside our state. That number’s much higher when you look at state universities.

So, if our institution is to remain relevant, we have to be thinking about how we serve and engage students while they’re in middle school and high school to make sure students and their parents understand what we can offer for them at a much better price. We also help the College serve students who are first in their families to attend college, students for whom English is not their first language and nontraditional adult students with varied learning needs. So, CE’s role in attracting more traditional college-aged students and serving nontraditional students is growing in importance.

At the same time, the fastest growing sub population we serve is lifelong learners over 50 years old. We learned during COVID-19 that online and hybrid are very popular modalities. We’ve been offering them for quite some time, but I don’t know if we have consistently done it well. We are improving our online offerings, as even our lifelong learners want online. In general, people want different delivery formats offered at a variety of times. Where the norm has been 16-week terms and two- or four-year degrees, now students want and need shorter, stackable credentials that fit in their busy lives.

Evo: How are you balancing the demand for online and hybrid with your on-campus courses?

JC: It’s an experiment in action. The pandemic forced us to increase online and hybrid options. We’re listening to the students who are saying they want classes to continue in those formats. Of course, it varies by program, and we have nearly returned to pre-COVID on-campus enrollment numbers. We’re learning from both faculty and students that we might be better off staying hybrid. Some classes are better suited to in-person learning, but the access provided by online must be considered. Listening to feedback from our students and employer partners is critical. The good news is they collectively want online, hybrid and in-person.

Evo: How has this shift in delivery formats affected staff efficiency? 

JC: Certainly, during COVID-19, everything got harder. Our work systems weren’t designed for everyone to be remote. Three years later, we do have higher efficiency. In academia, we love meetings, so we’ve looked at where we can cut some out because some of the work can happen without those meetings. Tighter budgets also force us to be more efficient. So, there are improvements that come with the budget and enrollment challenges we face in higher education.

Evo: What are some of the foundational tactics or strategies in CE that are just as important today?

JC: Partnerships remain critical. Whether it’s partnering with full-time faculty from degree courses and programs on campus or partnering with organizations and employers across the community, partnerships ensure what we are teaching fits need. At College of DuPage CE, each year we have over 600 partnerships that help us keep our offerings relevant, and they help us provide wraparound services for students.

Another critical strategy is demonstrating your total CE return on investment (ROI). Decades ago, CE was seen as a proverbial cash cow. While it can be, it depends on several factors, and for most institutions CE’s total ROI comes in more than a single line profit and loss statement.

To do our job well, we must tell the CE’s full story, so our institutions will understand the unit’s full contribution. They’ll understand CE’s total ROI includes how many students matriculate into degree courses and how you’re cultivating friends and funders. Right now, this isn’t broadly understood or practiced across the Continuing Education field, and it’s something we’ll talk about at the NCCET Conference this February in Nashville. Some colleges are downsizing Continuing Education, not realizing that it will impact future degree student enrollment, community support, employer connection, etc.

Evo: We’re seeing students becoming skeptical of the value of higher education. How does illustrating your ROI apply to students?

JC: Students just need what they need. Whether that’s providing short courses that occur more often and possibly in a hybrid format. They’re not going to know if it’s a CE or English department course. CE typically does a good job of meeting these needs because we have to respond to and predict the market.

They are not wrong. Gallup polls tell us that confidence in higher education is at an all-time low. This has a lot to do with the cost that has led to $1.3 trillion in student debt. It also has to do with the fact that higher education can be slow to adapt. The good news for Continuing Education is that we can change more quickly.

In the CE world, people either enroll or they don’t. Students and employers vote with their feet, and we change or we don’t exist. We’re here to serve our students, who, for us, are very diverse. What CE does is listen and have shorter cycles of feedback and program development. CE can bring things to students and to the marketplace faster and at more affordable rates. And despite the decline in confidence in higher education, I want to be clear, it’s not either/or. I’m strongly encouraging my children to get college degrees to provide more options in the long term. Studies show us the impact on lifelong earnings. So, CE is providing options that lead to immediate employment, further academic study as well as a plethora of personal interest topics.

Evo: What are some trends you expect to see in Continuing Education?

JC: I expect that institutions will increasingly better understand the broader value of Continuing Ed units. This has been happening for years, but traditional-aged student numbers are declining and will be for the next 15 years. As mentioned, there’s increased competition for students. Out of necessity, it’s increasingly important to look to CE as an integral part of your Strategic Enrollment Management plan. CE will continue offering short-term programming and training—more and more full time—and degree faculty will work through CE to increase access.

So, we need to work out our internal politics and processes to better serve students.

I believe we’ll see more short-term professional development, more online and hybrid courses. We’ll also see a continued focus on emerging technology even in non-tech programs.

Entrepreneurship is another area I see gaining more interest—for all ages. We have retirees coming to us, saying they want to mentor, give back and consult start-up businesses. Adults over 50 years old are also looking to transition into their second or third careers or wanting to volunteer. In short, CE’s role will continue to be grounded in helping people find meaning and purpose in life.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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