Published on 2018/10/22
The EvoLLLution | How to Accelerate Speed-to-Market for Non-Credit Offerings
Success in the non-credit space demands that institutions bring a different approach to program development and delivery than they do for credit-bearing options.

Given the importance of non-credit programming to generating necessary revenue for colleges and universities, the capacity to launch and maintain successful certificate, certification and stand-alone offerings is more critical than ever. Of course, at many postsecondary institutions, the process of launching an offering—even those intended to be market responsive—can be arduous. In this interview, Aric Krause shares his thoughts on what it takes to quickly launch non-credit offerings and reflects on the bottlenecks leaders can face when trying to get responsive offerings to market.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the speed-to-market for new non-credit programs so important for colleges and universities today?

Aric Krause (AK): Nearly every week, we see an article in the academic press about higher education institutions across the United States experiencing layoffs, downsizing or even closures. Budget concerns are not hypothetical—they are very real indeed. These institutions have rich histories with illustrious alumni/ae, but the current issues in higher education are not so much about the past as they are about right now, and about how the higher education landscape continues to change and evolve.

Institutions are searching for new revenue streams that are unrestricted and can be used to shore up current expenditures, deferred maintenance costs and campus improvement budgets. There is a rumor out there—and I believe it is a rumor—that for-credit and non-credit programs are high-margin solutions to these problems. There are a number of institutions that have been working in this space for a long time and are quite good at it. But for those trying to get into the market, I have some insights.

It is an incredibly competitive field. Not only are you competing with the big-name institution down the street or across town, you are competing—particularly in the non-credit space—with a number of training and development organizations that are well entrenched in this space. One would be hard pressed these days to find a higher education institution that ISN’T trying to develop non-credit programs.

There are two channels for delivering non-credit programs: to employers, and directly to potential students. Institutions prefer the employer route because there tends to be more volume. Marketing directly to students is far more difficult. Individual students are more likely to prefer for-credit courses so that the learning “counts”—for future degree attainment, for example. Employer tuition remission programs most often require that the benefit be used for “degree-seeking” programs, but when the employer hires an outside institution to provide non-credit programs they typically do so using other funds with less stringent criteria. So, employers are the best route to pursue.

Over the last 15 to 20 years of my professional life, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with employers about what they are seeking from non-credit programs. What they are looking for are knowledge, skills and abilities—with the primary emphasis on the latter. They are not as interested in receiving lectures on topics as they are in having a workforce that has palpable and measurable ability enhancements after completion. Yet, many employers tell me that institutions usually talk about courses they already teach. One executive told me that after he laid out in detail what his organization was looking for in a non-credit experience, a very large research institution responded with a series of courses they already offered in one of their programs on campus—as if “one-size-fits-all” ever is really true.

The institutions that are successful in this space are those that truly listen to what the employer is looking for, and then deliver on those needs in a customized manner. It is helpful if the curriculum itself lends to easy customization, but customization is always required. And customization equals higher cost of delivery, especially if the institution is committed to really providing what the employer is looking for. Customization also requires time for the development process.

If an institution really wants to be good at delivering non-credit programs, therefore, it has to:

  • Really hear what the employer is looking for.
  • Find a pedagogy and/or delivery methodology that will result in participants acquiring what the employer is looking for, in ways that can be tangibly measured.
  • Be competitively priced—there are many providers out there, not just in higher education.
  • Be able to deliver relatively quickly.

These days, “coding camps” are an example of a high-demand non-credit offering, and higher education institutions are scrambling to offer programs. But if institutions listen very carefully, they’ll hear that employers are not necessarily looking to have “coders” as much as they are looking for coders who can work in other capacities—in cybersecurity, in data warehousing and analytics, in web design or the like. It’s not actually about coding, per se, as it is about coding in one of these specific contexts.

That said, there is a very high degree of competition in the coding camp space. Private providers, workforce development organizations, state and local governments and many more are developing coding camps, in addition to all of the 2- and 4- year institutions hoping to do the same. In fact, looking at the number of (reputable) options available with a quick web search will show that it may be too late to successfully enter this space. From an economic standpoint, we know that when a market is competing on price, it is mature and very competitive.

The reality of the non-credit offerings space is that it is highly competitive (with the resulting limits on pricing) and relatively expensive to develop, given the degree of customization that employers require to consider the program valuable. Postsecondary institutions should not consider entering the space on the assumption of higher margin net revenue. If they do, they will be disappointed.

My advice for those choosing to enter is that if you are able to move quickly and fully deliver what is being sought in a compelling way, you can make a reasonable return—but only once the start-up investment is made, relationships are built, and you can benefit from scalability.

Evo: What are the key steps involved in developing and launching new non-credit offerings?

AK: The institutions that are most successful with non-credit offerings are those that have a particular specialty within a particular area. Entering the market with a new credit offering in an area for which it has a “competitive advantage” gives the institution the chance to make a noticeable return.

Getting started requires institutional investment—you can’t simply take courses out of the classroom and deliver them onsite. The institution will likely need content experts (hopefully, they come from an internal area of strength) and content developers. The program materials, website, instructional mode, and instruction require investment. The back-office investments are quite often overlooked: that is, the registration system, records of completion, logistics for delivery, outward-facing website and language, promotional materials, and the like.

Once those are taken into consideration, the next step is to develop working relationships by getting out to employers and listening to what they need. You can’t design a compelling program until you’ve heard what is needed. Once the organization states their needs, the response has to be a solution that is better than what is being offered by competitors in the space. The value of the offering has to be apparent relative to similar, competitor-driven opportunities. Institutions that are very successful in this space rely on pre-established relationships for clients. If those relationships are not readily available, they will take time to build.

However great the curriculum is, it will require customization—when employers are paying for non-credit offerings, they demand a certain level of customization, as they should. One way to build strong value is to ensure that the non-credit offering aligns with professional certifications that the employer recognizes. A certification strongly enhances the program’s value, even if the delivery is non-credit. Of course, if there are professional certifications available in the field, it is highly likely that ACE or CAEL—or a similar articulating organization—may have already articulated credit. In that case, why not offer the same program for credit? To do so further strengthens the value of the offering.

Finally, it comes down to delivery. Delivering programs to employers requires a very strong presenter who will also be recognized by the participants as an “expert” in the profession beyond academic preparation. For example, presenting project management training to an organization requires someone who has significant background in managing real projects to completion. Consistent with behavioral learning science, the audience has to trust that the presenter is an expert before they’ll be willing to internalize instruction. Further, the presentation itself has to be compelling. We’ve all sat through boring lectures at various points in our lives. Since the company (or individual) is paying, they will demand an active learning experience.

Evo: Where in the process do new non-credit offerings tend to get bogged down or stalled?

AK: I’ve talked to many schools about their non-credit offerings, and I’ve found that there are generally three reasons for failure:

  1. Lack of relevance

For better or worse, those participating in non-credit offerings demand a very high degree of practicality in what they are learning. If the delivery is too theoretical or not pragmatic enough, it is highly unlikely you’ll be asked to repeat it. It is hard enough to get the first contract for delivery, given how high the acquisition cost is. You want to deliver a program that’s strong enough to compel the client organization to repeat the experience, and tell others how great it is. Going to market with a sophomoric offering will hurt the institution.

  1. Campus politics and investment requirements

Curriculum approval processes are not typically required for non-credit offerings, but developing these offerings requires significant institutional investment up front. Various campus constituencies are on occasion quick to politic against such investment because it is seen as reallocating resources away from core activities. Institutions entering non-credit offerings for the first time are usually resource-challenged to begin with. It is a big decision to take scarce funds and allocate them to something completely new, especially when the investment has to happen upfront to build delivery capacity.

  1. Poor professional networks or lack of internal expertise

Institutions that don’t have strong connections in professional communities can struggle to find clients. It’s not easy to pitch to an employer without preexisting relationships. Similarly, it’s not easy for a school that doesn’t have strong (as viewed externally) computer science or information technology programs to develop coding camps. Given the level of competition in this space, there has to be a differentiating expertise or delivery method to really attract clients.

Evo: In your experience, how have you overcome or altogether avoided running into these bottlenecks?

AK: Institutions that want to build non-credit offerings should consider the following questions:

  1. From an institutional perspective, do we have internal expertise in a particular area that the external community would value—not just in terms of academic expertise, but in a professional context as well? In other words, what knowledge/expertise areas can we leverage that our competitors likely don’t have?

Every institution has knowledge/expertise clusters. The question it must ask is whether or not the community desires that knowledge and would be willing to pay for it. The institution has to be honest in this evaluation. Having an institutional expertise in archaeology, for example, is commendable but finding a non-credit community that is willing to pay for that may be difficult. If so, then:

  1. Do we have the networks to find the people who would be willing to pay for that expertise?

Be it professional networks, alumni/ae networks, or something similar, relationship development in the community is hard and takes time and unique talent to build. Crucially, these people have to be able to actively listen to the community’s needs, and then translate those needs into a program. If so, then:

  1. Do we have the internal resources to build a compelling experience that our networks would be willing to pay for? Can we build something that would be marginally better than competing options so that someone would be willing to pay for it?

The curriculum has to be compelling. This is a capacity question as well as an internal expertise question. If so, then:

  1. Do we have the institutional resources to fund development? From a financial and relationship standpoint, are we willing to allow two to three years to build relationships and let them bear fruit, and for the revenue to reflect what we hope to achieve?

If you can answer all four of these questions positively, then get started, knowing that it will take between two and five years before the undertaking is likely to generate net resources, as evidenced by case studies of many of the institutions who are successful in this area.

Like all institutional initiatives, a strong commitment on behalf of the institution’s leadership is necessary to the success of such undertakings. If the institution’s executive leadership is willing to make the investment and commit to it for two to five years, then it is likely to get some traction in the space, as long as the conditions above are met.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Understanding—truly understanding—the needs of employers and then being able to customize existing offerings to build a non-credit program or course specifically tailored to their needs is the best way to quickly develop a new offering with staying power.
  • Agility and relationship-building are central to competitiveness in the fast-moving non-credit world.
  • An effective back-end infrastructure is as important to delivering a great experience in the non-credit space as the front-end course or program delivery.