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Responding to Change: Learning to Stay Agile in the New Higher Ed

Responding to Change: Learning to Stay Agile in the New Higher Ed
If institutions can’t be proactive about meeting learner needs in a fast-changing world, then they are already failing to pursue the New Higher Ed mission. 

Offering a traditional path to and through higher education won’t be how institutions get learners through their doors today. Instead, learners’ expectations of the higher ed experience resemble a revolving door giving learners the flexibility to earn what they need at a specific time. Fulfilling this vision requires a shift in the old model of higher ed institutions have been following for decades. In this interview, Ed Abeyta discusses how the higher ed landscape has shifted, the challenges they’re facing and how to adapt to a more agile model.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen the higher education landscape evolve in recent years?

Ed Abeyta (EA): Recently, The New York Times published what they call “Not U!” It referred to the intersection we’re in, where we’re figuring out how to adapt as higher ed leaders? There are pros and cons to the pandemic, but ultimately it was a catalyst for change.

Online learning was taboo before, and now we’re having to embrace it. At UC San Diego, it opened up so many opportunities in terms of outreach, impact and the quality of online education. But the future of a classroom is different. We have so much office and classroom space that we’re having to re-evaluate as we look to possible hybrid learning.

We’ve learned that you must adapt and always look forward. This isn’t episodic; it’s ongoing. The fact that traditional institutions are now thinking more like a business is positive. We profess lifelong learning, say we adapt and change, but sometimes we don’t take our own medicine.

Evo: What are some persistent or emerging challenges currently affecting the higher education sector?

EA: There are various challenges depending on your institution. Some are seeing declining enrollment, while others are turning students away. An example that concerns me is that UC San Diego had a record year of applications and had to turn away about ¾ of students. With that, the challenge is then finding ways to connect with the community. And it’s ongoing.

The increasing cost of education is another concern. This isn’t an issue in other countries. Many students don’t want to take on student debt and are beginning to question the value of postsecondary education. They need a ROI. We must rethink our system because that element is altering families and structures when students graduate, so it becomes an economic issue.

This is our moment. We must let people know that, while we have undergraduate education, we also have skills, knowledge and abilities related to the workforce development people are seeking—learning opportunities that require minimal investment but provide high return. This is where extended education plays a holistic mosaic in our offering to our community.

Evo: What are some key expectations learners today have of their institutions and overall higher ed experience?

EA: Good ROI starts with high-quality education. People want quality and expect an education that equips them with the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to pursue a career path, which means rigorous academic programs and well-qualified faculty that are up to date on industry trends.

This perspective isn’t just for adult learners. Higher ed needs to redefine how we approach lifelong learning. Other important elements are personalization and flexibility. We have to start looking at people with working demands, families and so on that impact the equation.

Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is real respect for mental health and wellbeing, not only for students but staff as well. We’re in recovery mode from the pandemic, and that manifests in everyone. As we think about learner expectations, we need to be sensitive to mental impacts and foster community networking to provide a sense of belonging.

Evo: What are some best practices to maintain agility in response to learners’ rapidly evolving demands?

EA: This is where I’m excited for Continuing Education because more institutions are beginning to think about the role CE plays outside of adult education—the K-12 pipeline. It also complements undergraduate degree programs. But what’s missing is the 50-and-older pipeline. That spectrum is truly lifelong learning.

Right now, lifelong learning targets 24- to 50-year-olds. But we need to expand our offering and consider lifelong learning from early childhood development to over 50 years old. I’m calling it twinkle to wrinkle. It’s critical that learners have a support network throughout their career path. We have a lot of influence in our profession to create an affinity for our community to connect with our universities.

Evo: What are some trends you anticipate for the future of higher ed?

EA: Industry is driving us to change in some respects. While there’s debate over the traditional academic cathedral, there must be a fine balance between the academic research and rigor going into the institution and the skills knowledge and abilities learner needs. The intersection of career development and certificates isn’t what it was.

Things are changing rapidly changing, which is a disruptor to our business model. The old model is under attack, and we have an opportunity to adapt and be agile to these changes.

We also need to think about being proactive instead of reactive. If we can’t anticipate issues, then we’re too late to solve them. Workforce alignment and hybrid learning will also be constant. And microcredentials will eventually be integrated into business models, but we still have to figure out that process as a new element. What’s great at UC San Diego is that leadership is saying our CE division is an equal partner in overall community impact—locally, nationally and now on a global scale.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.