Charting A New Course For UPCEA
Major changes are coming for UPCEA. Photo by Elliot Brown.

Today’s economic realities have forced higher education to begin rethinking its fundamental business model—a model that for the past 30 years or more has seen the cost of college far outpace the cost of living for ordinary families. Universities throughout the nation, except perhaps the most elite institutions with their large endowments, hefty financial aid packages and prestigious reputations, have been compelled to consider three critical issues: access, affordability and accountability. This is happening as the public has begun to seriously question whether the high cost of a university degree is worth the price, especially at a time when more and more graduates with crushing student-loan debt cannot find jobs after leaving campus.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for continuing and professional higher education, where such schools and divisions often have a reputation for innovation and flexibility, and a philosophy of providing greater access to learning at more affordable tuition prices. CE is also known for building highly successful business models capable of delivering quality learning experiences while returning much-needed revenue back to the university.

It is an area that is increasingly finding a seat at the university table, especially as many CE units have been leaders in identifying new multi-discipline academic programs, especially in graduate, post-baccalaureate and professional development studies. They have also have championed distance learning at their institutions and among the new populations that come with expanding the reach of the institution.

The University Professional & Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) mission is to advance continuing higher education leadership and the institutions they serve.  To meet that challenge, especially at a time when so many universities and colleges are going through such volatile change, the UPCEA leadership – including then-UPCEA President Judy Ashcroft (University of Texas, Austin), UPCEA President James Shaeffer (James Madison University) and UPCEA’s new CEO Robert Hansen, with the approval of the UPCEA Board of Directors, decided at the beginning of this year to engage in a strategic planning process that would rethink the association, its business model and practices, and the services provided to its members. I had the honor, as President-Elect of UPCEA, to serve as chair of the UPCEA Strategic Planning Committee.

What became clear after surveying all UPCEA members and convening more than 100 institutional leaders at the association’s annual conference in Toronto earlier this year was the need for dramatic change – for the professional benefit of our members, the field and its voice in public policy, and the professionalism of the association itself. Many of these challenges have been recognized for some time by UPCEA leadership but the strategic planning process put the voice of its members behind a long-needed call to action.

What has emerged is a Strategic Plan, which was debated and informally endorsed this September by UPCEA’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors, and is now before the membership, regional councils, commissions, and communities of practice for their feedback. The Board, after considering membership feedback, will formally vote on the plan at its next regular meeting in January in Washington, D.C.

The strategic planning committee, made up of dozens of UPCEA senior institutional leaders, stressed the need for a great many changes and new directions. Among them:

  • Create a comprehensive professional development agenda that meets the evolving needs of CE units and professional members. This strategy calls, for instance, a greater use of technology to deliver professional development opportunities, and to extend such learning opportunities to a broader CE audience including enrollment management, student services and other professional support areas.
  • Develop a research and information capacity to serve members and their institutions. Optimize the potential of the new UPCEA Center for Research and Consulting, created and staffed only this past summer, to meet this market need. These efforts should identify trends from studies/surveys and be shared with membership and when appropriate with the public; build a clearinghouse of benchmarking information; create an inventory of annual reports and provide customized and affordable research opportunities for members from large and small institutions alike.
  • Advance the interests of the profession by developing a realistic, yet effective approach to advocacy. Engage vigorously on a select number of key issues where UPCEA’s leadership can add value and collaborate with other organizations when appropriate to amplify our collective voices in the public policy arena.
  • Create strategic alliances with organizations in the adult education field to provide greater service and opportunities to members.
  • Reorganize UPCEA’s structure to reflect new strategic goals and priorities. To that end, merge existing complex committee structures to a new single streamlined structure built around Networks. Create new relationships between the National Office and the Regional Councils, which will increasingly be possible with the creation of new conference service functions, a new chief learning officer position and other support services that will greatly increase the capacity and professionalism of the National Office.
  • UPCEA’s infrastructure and business practices are outdated and do not comport with best practices in association management. The plan proposed changes to Board structure, membership qualifications and terms and election protocol. Improved accounting and audit practices will also be put into place to meet best industry practices.
  • The Association has been curiously reluctant to stake its territory in one strategically important area where CE deans and directors have been leaders at their institutions: online learning.  The Association will find new ways to engage members in the distance learning field.
  • UPCEA relies too heavily on membership fees and revenues from its annual conference. Diversify revenue streams to achieve greater financial stability. Along with the new Center for Research and Consulting, such diversification can be achieved through webinars and online workshops, the development of a corporate relationship management strategy and offering specialty conferences, to name just a few examples.
  • UPCEA’s institutional membership model still enjoys widespread support but there is also strong support to open the association’s doors wider by providing an unlimited number of professional memberships for each institutional member; individual membership for CE professionals not associated with an institution; corporate membership, and exploring the creation of a university systems membership. The association should also re-examine its relationship with community colleges and for-profit universities.

The Strategic Plan charts a bold new course for UPCEA by calling for fundamental change to an association that has been slow to change with the CE profession. Such a shift in direction is never easy but the ultimate goal, as well stated in the Strategic Plan, is to create a new UPCEA that is worthy of the vision, expertise, creativity, and values of its members.

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