We Can't Tenure Our Way Out: How CE Can Help Universities Adapt to a Recession EconomyMichael Frasciello | Dean of the University College, Syracuse University
The pandemic response has pushed higher education institutions to develop new strategies to adapt to evolving learner needs. Although emergencies require unique and specific responses, higher ed’s shift to remote and online education has placed them in a better position than they’ve ever to move into an unpredictable future. As people are adapting to an online-friendly environment, institutions can use their resources to evolve and improve the education their learners receive. Of course, for the most part, expertise on this transition lies within continuing education divisions that have historically operated on the periphery of postsecondary institutions. It’s time for these leaders to speak up and step in to help their school evolve. In this interview, Michael Frasciello discusses resources that can be adapted to meet future learners’ needs, reflects on what it will take to prepare for enrollment increases in the event of a recession, and shares his thoughts on the cultural shift that needs to happen for continuing ed divisions to gain and maintain a leading voice.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Do you think some of the innovations and tools that we’ve introduced to support the shift to remote education will be adopted into our post-pandemic new normal?
Michael Frasciello (MF): Absolutely, 100%. For years, many of us in the online education space have felt that we shift the LMS into second gear. That’s a phrase we use here quite often. We’re not exploiting the technologies we’ve invested. What this current crisis is demonstrating is the critical nature of having a robust and stable instructional technology infrastructure and the degree to which we can extend those in ways we typically didn’t think about before. I fully expect that, when we emerge from this, we’ll see universities fully adopting the LMS as a critical component of their infrastructure.
We’re seeing a modest adoption of hybrid and flipped instruction. What our response to this crisis is demonstrating for a lot of traditional faculty is that they can move some of their instruction online in very meaningful and rigorous ways. In doing so, they’re optimizing the time that they have face-to-face in class, in labs or in the field. That’s a practice we’ll see as part of the new normal. We’ll see more curriculum, particularly at the end of undergraduate level, that includes much more hybrid instruction.
On the student support side, we’re seeing some of the positive effects already at Syracuse University. We’re developing our ability to deliver student support, tutoring and coaching, advising, health and wellness and counseling services in an online modality—in ways that we may have been cautious to consider in the past. We’re finding that we can actually do this really, really well using online platforms.
When we come out of this on the back end, I know Syracuse University will have a great interest in looking at providing a lot of student services in online virtual environments where we may have opted for the more traditional approach.
Evo: How can tools and processes already in place be leveraged to scale more broadly to support a wider demographic of learners?
MF: There are tools and technologies, platforms, methods, techniques and approaches that we have been using in continuing adult education for years. Our challenge, for the most part, is operating on the fringes. In response to this crisis, we’re the folks at the table that know how to do this. We know how to leverage infrastructure and instructional technology. We know how to reach students at a distance. We know how to support and teach them online. Based on our experiences with adult learners, we know the challenges of doing multiple things while you’re trying to persist with your education.
I’m sure some new technologies will emerge from this, but this is an opportunity to exploit the investments that we’ve made into some really good technology that we haven’t had the opportunity — or exigency wasn’t there for us–to really shift that tech up into fifth gear.
Evo: How should universities be preparing for the likely increase in demand that’s going to follow significant unemployment?
MF: Higher ed runs countercyclical to economic conditions. When the economy is good, it challenges the enrollment side—particularly graduate and adult continuing education spaces. When the economy is down, typically we see an enrollment increase. From my own experience and perspective, I think as we emerge from this, universities really have to start taking a hard look at their pro forma tuition increases that you see in a typical cycle.
Typically, tuition goes up anywhere from 3% to 7% year over year. We’ve heard for years about the unsustainability of the higher ed tuition bubble, and yet it’s still this weird anomaly. In higher ed, for the most part, tuition goes up and stays there. Individuals are having to find ways to pay more for their education every year. Based on unemployment generally, but also economic conditions, universities are going to have to hold tuition increases for at least a year or two.
When it comes to hiring, universities need to start thinking seriously about bringing on more scholar practitioners. While research is central to the university’s mission, we’re going to need highly qualified teachers–individuals who have the credentials but aren’t research-focused. They just want to teach. And they’re out there; we work with them all the time.
The challenge for universities is the ongoing debate about the university’s gentrification. This will be a labor issue. Universities need to be prepared to have these conversations with their full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty. There will be no way to tenure our way out of this. If a university is going to step up to meet the increased demand that we would expect to see in a down economy, they have to be prepared to hire non-tenure-track teaching faculty. That’ll be a culture shift for a lot of places.
Universities should be responding more to industry than they have in the last five to eight years with market-responsive programming. After all, we’re operating in uncertain economic conditions. We also need to be aware of demographic challenges and the shrinking population of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old students who come to campus and live in dorms. Those demographic shifts are going to be more evident.
So, universities need to be nimbler and more willing to adopt alternative types of education.
Evo: How can continuing ed approaches be adapted and scaled to create a new culture of access for adults in the upcoming future?
MF: First, let’s consider the unemployed adult as we emerge from this crisis. Before the crisis, we had 54 million adults in the United States with some amount of college education but no degree. Now, what percentage of that 54 million will be emerging from this unemployed?
What we can apply to this issue are techniques that allow us to deliver instruction and training while individuals are also able to pursue employment. We need to work with employers who are hiring individuals who don’t have a degree. Here, employers are permitting just-in-time instruction on the shop floor. We need to look at some of the techniques we’ve used in the past, especially with customized instruction and programs.
CE units are typically the best equipped to offer such instruction, and have the most experience working with corporations to build custom training and education programs. That could be something that’s adopted more broadly across the academic enterprise, with the universities building custom degrees for individuals attempting to transition into the tech sector or some other high-demand field.
It all comes back to developing and marketing industry-responsive programming. CE units historically have been on the forefront of creating market-sensitive programs, and we generally develop them and take them to market rapidly. This could be mapped to any sort of academic credential. I would expect universities to adopt this approach more broadly.
Evo: Are there any lessons from the 2008 recession that we can apply to how institutions can adapt to the challenges we’re currently facing?
MF: We’ll probably have a better sense of that in a few months. My gut tells me that this recession will be unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes.
One lesson learned we from 2008 was how we looked at financial aid and developed approaches to make education accessible to non-traditional students in ways we hadn’t in the past. We’ve since adopted that as a regular practice.
Access is going to be a big issue, I think. Who will have access to higher ed as we emerge from this pandemic and enter an unprecedented global economic recession? We have to work really hard and be very intentional in focusing on the populations that CE units have traditionally served. In many cases, those people are from underrepresented populations or are first-generation college students. We can’t lose sight of that.
Institutionally, CE units have to be the ones at the table reminding universities that it’s not all about the “full pay” learners.
Evo: What is it going to take to actively move these divisions—continuing education divisions, professional learning divisions, workforce education divisions, Extension units—to actively move from the periphery and into the center of the institution?
MF: There needs to be a cultural shift that recognizes the centrality of what continuing education units do and have done historically. We need to serve non-traditional approaches to traditional audiences.
If we look at growth of mega-universities in the U.S., it has primarily been the result of strong senior leadership who recognized a market that needed to be served. Not only that, but it’s also a market that needs to be served well, in ways that differ from the on-ground, lockstep model of traditional higher education. At Syracuse University, we have a chancellor who is dedicated to the post-traditional population and reminds individuals within the school how that has been part of our DNA for 100 years. Having boards of trustees that understand that there’s a broader mission beyond the four-year undergrad and the two-year grad is also essential.
So, you need strong leadership with vision who recognizes the opportunity, the purpose, the mission and the need.
As CE leaders, this is our Super Bowl. We need to step up and step in with confidence to position our teams at the forefront of these efforts. Whether it’s student support, programming, instruction delivery or course delivery, we need to be thrusting our resources and our assets into the response.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 3, 2020.