As CE Becomes More Central, Focus on Online Retention Will Intensify
The following interview is with Chris Tilghman, vice-president of program development at InsideTrack. Tilghman works with senior postsecondary administrators to develop programs that improve student outcomes, and has his ear to the ground when it comes to emerging industry trends. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on some of the big changes impacting higher education today, some of the major concerns keeping administrators up at night and the importance of improving online retention rates when it comes to securing future Title IV funding.
1. What are some of the major trends that will shape continuing higher education over the next 10 years?
I’ll tell you some things that are top of mind for me. One is mobile. I think that continuing ed divisions and continuing ed leaders are really the folks who brought universities into the world of online learning. My hope is they’ll be the folks who really bring their university’s online learning efforts into the computer that everybody’s carrying in their pockets every day, and is always connected, and that’s on their phone or equivalent device. But I really don’t think we’ve seen anything approaching what’s possible, given the fact that the phone has got location capability built into it, it’s got incredible media capabilities built into it.
Nobody has, yet, but I do think over the next five to 10 years, somebody will figure out how to really make learning happen in a context where there’s a computer attached to somebody all day, every day. It seems like there’s incredible opportunities to take things about people’s physical location and turn that location into something of a learning environment wherever they are throughout the day.
2. Are you seeing the most interest from continuing ed leaders in that the area of teaching and learning innovations, or are they also looking at elements that would support administration of their institution and of their units?
It is probably more of the latter, right now, than the former. You’ve got a situation where folks who are leading continuing education units … are being looked at as more important than they ever were and needing to be brought more centrally into the university and its operations because these are often centers of expertise around online learning, around part-time learning, hybrid learning. Or, they’re facing a situation where they’re being marginalized because their unit has always been seen as an auxiliary extension … and the ‘core’ of the university is beginning to do more and more online, and so the locus of expertise and investment in this dynamic segment and this dynamic, fast-growing population of students now is becoming part of the [main] university.
The reality of it is you see leaders in these positions constantly having to state the case for their relevance, but I think the stakes are higher than ever.
Will the heretofore extension or online units remain as such? Will they have the same kind of autonomy and independence that they had before, or not? Will it have a leadership position that it could have, or not?
3. Given the changes in enrollment demographics — where the number of non-traditional students is increasing and the number of traditional students is decreasing — do you think an institution can be successful in the future if it does not make continuing education central to institutional practices?
I would say yes and no, and I think it really just depends on the scope of student types you’re trying to serve. …
The Williams Colleges of the world are not going to need to dramatically start pushing online and continuing education beyond where it sits in their current operations. I don’t know anything particular about a school like that except I know it delivers a very special kind of around-the-seminar-table, closely curated through a strong relationship with a faculty member, academic experience for residential undergraduates.
There are going to be people who really want that and, so, to the degree that that institution really only seeks to serve that segment of the market and do it exceptionally well, I think they will absolutely thrive. For a large public institution — a land-grant institution or a community college — where you’re serving a much more diverse array of student types, more and more, you’re going to have students who don’t finish their whole education in the 18 to 24-year-old span, who get part of the way there and need to get the rest of the way there after some kind of delay. Or, they do get all the way there and within a couple of years, they need some refresher.
All of those students, 10 years from now, … will have had an experience of doing some learning online. They’ll be living in a world where they expect to be able to engage in education in bite-sized ways wherever they are, whenever they want. I really don’t think a large public institution is going to be able to really serve the kinds of large groups of students without some sensibility toward the kind of things that continuing ed [units] already understand.
Does that mean there’s going to continue to be a separate continuing ed unit? Maybe, particularly for folks who just want the credential or the part-time kind of thing. But, do I sense that more and more universities will snap back the professional master’s degree program that are hybrid and online today delivered through the continuing ed unit? Yeah, probably so. They will just become more of the norm and see more of the standard operating procedures of the university.
4. Do you think the traditional four-year degree is going to be the most common route to a credential in 10 years’ time?
I still think that will be the case. I heard somebody say that if Abraham Lincoln walked into a college classroom today, he’d know exactly where he was. It doesn’t change that fast.
Ten years from now, do I think people won’t be getting undergraduate degrees? Will there be a huge shift in the portion of those who seek higher education and who are not doing that? No, I do not think so. But I do think the way people get to it may be different on the margins, and then the margins themselves will open up channels for people to pursue a full degree program but also to be able to get credentials for much smaller batches of content and expertise and skill development. You see it with the badges, you see it with this notion of digital portfolios — the people being able to build them and share.
5. What are the most significant challenges worrying continuing education leaders today?
Some of the most advanced ones — the ones who are operating fairly large-scale online units or degree-granting units — they’re really focused on the part-time working adult. I think the smartest people in those operations are starting to get very, very concerned about retention and student success.
The reality is that retention of … undergraduate students … is lower on the online side or on the adult side. The reason that is such a concern is that, as we talked about, more and more visibility coming from the university and also from funding sources like the federal government toward online learning means more scrutiny of outcomes. When you start looking under the rocks, retention rates — even for some of the very best universities you can think of, with the most advanced systems in online learning — still suffer. They suffer in large part because the students they are serving are working adults, but those working adults don’t face dramatically different financial aid policies than a traditional residential student does. So it’s fair for the federal government to look at the money it’s lending to students, seeing how likely they are to get through to completing a degree and going, “Wait, this is just not making sense as an investment.”
The moment those kind of questions start arising, and the Title IV spigot starts to get closed down a little bit, that is serious stuff for continuing ed units who serve the part-time students.
The smartest folks right now really are trying to get their head around retention and completion.
6. Is it fair for these students to be ranked or expected to complete along the same lines as a traditional-aged student? What can higher education institutions do to make government bodies understand the particular challenges and pathways that adult students take?
You have to strike a balance. It is certainly important to raise the issue that you just pointed out, that adult students do stop in and stop out. However, you have to draw the line somewhere. What you just said is not an excuse for students not completing degrees.
It doesn’t answer the question that I just posed hypothetically from a federal regulator about the quality of lending to the students who aren’t likely to complete the degree. You can’t have your cake and eat it too as an institution.
It is fair to say [we need] a more sophisticated way of analyzing retention for these kinds of students because they come in with different levels of credit and they take courses, often, at a slower pace than a full-time residential student. But if you’re telling me we should believe it’s okay for a student to take 10 years to complete a degree, that’s got to be the exceptional case; it just can’t be the norm.
The reality is that knowledge is changing constantly. By the time that student actually graduates, what they got credit for learning 10 years ago may be completely subsumed or improved upon a decade later. It’s just hard to say a 10-year horizon or a 12-year horizon is appropriate. That’s what you’re asking for if you go too far down that well; students stop in and stop out. … You can’t tell me that [if] 1,000 students started an undergraduate program online, it’s acceptable for half as many of them to have graduated in four years’ time as their on-ground peers. A half would be generous; frankly, it’s often much worse than half.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the more prevalent trends that are affecting the way continuing education will develop in the next 10 to 20 years and the challenges that administrators need to overcome to make sure their units remain viable?
Well, I think I’d make a point about leadership and there are two sides to this coin. One is, more and more, we will see institutions bringing into the provost and presidency roles [the] people who have significant experience with online education and/or part-time adult continuing education. I think the doors are open and, frankly, there’s a hunger for that kind of experience from trustees in a way that there never has been before. To some degree, being the dean of an extension unit was kind of the end of a career before, and now I think more and more it’s a stepping stone to leading the whole institution.
There’s a flipside to that which is that, particularly for online units, many, many more of those units are serving traditional students who are trying to shift their schedules and trying to pick up classes in the summer. It’s becoming important that folks who lead those units, who may have spent their whole career thinking about serving adult students, actually learn how to embrace and serve the 18 to 24-year-old. It cuts both ways.
I do think it’s more promising than not for folks who are heading up continuing ed units, who might have ambitions to take on an even bigger role later.
Author Perspective: Business