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Chaos Breeds Hope: Higher Ed’s Opportunity in the New Normal

Learners have had the time to stop and reflect on what’s most important to them—a learning experience that will enable them to have a career that can face unexpected challenges if something like COVID-19 were to occur in the future. 

The pandemic has opened eyes in higher education, but there needs to be continuous change to adapt to the new normal of learners’ expectations for their education. Partly due to having an uncertainty the future ahead, learners want and need a flexible education that will meet their needs quickly and efficiently. Champlain College Online conducted a survey to see how people are feeling about the pandemic and higher ed. In this interview, Benjamin Akande discusses the pandemic’s impact on adult learners, how to support learners as they change careers, and the importance of staying relevant in today’s fast-changing market.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What opportunities has the pandemic presented, both to institutions and to adult learners?

Benjamin Akande (BA): The uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has been challenging for everyone. And this is especially true for adult learners like Champlain College Online students. Many of them attend part-time and are balancing educating their children at home, doing their job or finding a new one, and school. 

However, our research reveals there is a prevailing positive feeling most days. And we believe this is because the pandemic has encouraged everyone to reflect on what is important in their lives and prioritize it. For prospective adult students, it’s about creating the opportunity—and perhaps the necessity—to look at one’s work and ask: is it recession-proof? Can I see a future for myself here? And if the answer is no, how do I access training for a job that is? And how do I do it in real time?

What we’re trying to do is to move our prospective students from living in a world of no to embracing the world of yes. We are the yes. And in essence, Champlain College Online’s response has been to establish a number of career-focused certificates in areas like cybersecurity, project management, blockchain and data analytics because we know that there are jobs across the world in those fields. People want to re-skill quickly nowadays. The good news for place-bound adults is that more and more of these positions are now remote, so there’s no need for them to pick up and move. They can continue to be functionally relevant wherever they are.

Evo: What are the characteristics of the traditional higher education environment that simply don’t work when it comes to meeting the needs of adult learners?

BA: The first is the notion that they have to inconvenience their lives to attend your institution. That notion poses additional challenges on adult learners who are, in many cases, unable to relocate. How do you take out the distance in distance education? How do you bring that experience to them—an experience that is relevant, competitive, and that reflects what the market wants? That is the value added by Champlain College Online. 

Our programs are market-relevant. We’re not just talking about the present; we’re looking ahead at what is coming and how our potential students can prepare themselves for that unseen future. We’re their visual lens in doing that. 

A lot of institutions still believe that students have to drop their lives, come to them and physically attend classes on a weekly basis. But we’ve introduced convenience. At the same time, we’ve also introduced futuristic assessment of where there are job openings, and what kind of skill sets are necessary to be relevant in that particular space.

Evo: What impact does student support services have on the adult student experience, especially for those looking for a career change?

BA: One thing I say to my team is to lead from where you are. It’s important for people to have a sense of ownership over their place within an organization. Be the change. Don’t look at the future as a destination but as what you create. By going back to school to upskill or re-skill, adult learners are kickstarting that process. 

However, technical skills alone are often not enough. Today, more than ever, adult students need to walk away from their higher education knowing how to position themselves in a competitive job market, which requires much more than just having the appropriate skills.

This is why we partnered with executive career coach Jen Morris of Career Inspo. We took her proven Fast Start Formula career course—whose pillars are: get focused, get branded, get noticed, get hired—and built it into an on-demand, self-paced course for our students. Jen also facilitates live group job coaching sessions for them. Her process works and has proven to be very pivotal in our students’ careers. We’re also supporting our them through Wellbeing Wednesdays, a live webinar series we launched early on in the pandemic. It’s hosted by our staff and faculty and features a variety of topics that aim to support our students in all aspects of their lives. Some of the recent topics that we’ve touched on include creating your personal brand, using the science of emotions to create healthy habits, and addressing equity and social justice using behavioral science.

Evo: Do you see an opportunity to scale career advising by taking this on-demand course approach, as opposed to relying on individual career advisors to provide that service?

BA: We know that in a course format, people are paying attention and that they have to retain what is provided to them. By doing it in a course format, you’re continuing the educational process. 

What we’re saying is that these are fundamentals. These are critical requirements that you need to embed within your understanding and appreciation. That approach has proven to be very effective and extremely cogent to career development.

Evo: What can colleges do to better engage with employers to create more and better demand, and to ensure that skills gaps are being addressed during the education process?

BA: I’m fairly new to Champlain College, but my presidency started in July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the reasons I chose Champlain was because of how truED and Champlain College Online are boldly reimagining workforce development. Also, we have a strong professional focus on education for both traditional-age and adult students. Through truED, we work with leading employers across the country to better understand their talent needs and to help students affordably develop their skills. We’ve built a talent pipeline from Champlain directly to employers. 

Evo: In the survey results, 36% of respondents said they’ve developed new skills through free training options—how can institutions combat that affordability differentiator? 

BA: We were intrigued by that statistic as well because we know that price can be a large barrier for adult students trying to make ends meet. It’s one of the most insurmountable barriers out there, especially in this challenging time in our country. So, at Champlain College Online, we believe in supporting working adults by making high-quality education affordable.

In 2018, Champlain College Online made a bold move to reduce our undergraduate tuition by 50%. And our enrollment continues to grow in the aftermath—including in our degree programs and with shorter-term credentials. The biggest barriers to achieving or embracing an educational credential are usually time and affordability. We believe that by taking the affordability issue off the table and giving students access to great education, we meet our mission as an institution. Most importantly, we enable adult learners to get where they want to be. And we’ve found real value in doing that.

Evo: How important is it for non-degree education to stay relevant to the evolving needs of adult students, especially in a very fast changing job market?

BA: After I earned my PhD years ago, someone said to me, “I guess you’re done with learning now.” That was five years after I received that PhD, and my response to them was that I was learning far more after getting that degree than when I was pursuing it. 

non-degree education is important, both to adult learners and employers. It’s one of the reasons we have been intentionally expanding our portfolio in that area with our employer partners. At the same time, there’s very limited data on the ROI of non-degree education, but there’s a considerable amount of research conducted each year on the value of a bachelor’s degree, for example. We really believe and see value in developing long-term credentials like communication, adaptability, problem solving, problem finding and technical skills. 

Evo: What do you think needs to happen to create more opportunities for those pursuing traditional degrees to also pursue some certificates that are going to support their employability? How do we provide learners access to a more well-rounded education?

BA: We believe that fostering a culture of lifelong learning needs to happen from the inside out. My job is to encourage staff and faculty to develop themselves for the long haul and to encourage the same with our students and our employer partners. 

We need to emphasize that learning doesn’t end when the first program is completed or the degree is conferred. We have to reiterate that message repeatedly in our informal and formal communications—like alumni newsletters or advising sessions. We also need to continue developing a portfolio that gives people a reason to come back to our college, ne that gives them on-demand skills that employers require. Yeats said it best: an education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire. Our job is to keep that fire going with relevant programming and market-sensitive skill development that essentially position our students not just for the present but also for the distant future.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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