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FLEx: Navigating the Reality of Declining Enrollments with Flexible Programming (Part 1)

FLEx: Navigating the Reality of Declining Enrollments with Flexible Programming (Part 1)
Creating flexible programming is an innovative approach to boosting enrollment of adult students in the face of declining numbers of traditional-age students.
Over the past two years, higher education institutions have seen decreasing enrollments in both traditional, on-campus courses, as well as in their online courses. According to a recent report from the National Student Clearninghouse, the decline in enrollments appears to be accelerating.[1],[2] Additionally, annual growth rate in online enrollment dropped to 9.3 percent, lowest in the past 10 years.[3]

Recovering from this trend requires a great deal of forward-thinking innovation from higher education institutions, and continuing education units can take the lead. After all, the fastest-growing group of students is adults; it is more than likely that higher education institutions are going to have to focus on enrolling and retaining non-traditional students, an area that distance and continuing education units have particular expertise in.

At my institution, we responded to the drop in numbers — and other enrollment factors — by creating a program focused on providing students with greater flexibility with how and when they take courses.

The Program

The program, called the Flexible Learning Experience (FLEx) offers students two types of fully online courses:

1. Open Entry/Open Exit

Focusing on open entry and exits, institutions can allow students to enroll in courses at any time during the calendar year and complete the course at their own pace. Of course, these classes must be completed within a limited time period, but can be completed more quickly.

2. Condensed Term

Rather than providing students with a completely open slate, this strategy allows students to earn course credits in a much shorter time-frame than would otherwise be possible. In this case, we offer four- or seven-week terms.

Creating a number of highly-flexible options to get academic credits allows students to forge their own pathways toward a degree. They are also encouraged to enroll in and continue their studies with much less inconvenience. Before launch, the courses are put through a highly rigorous review process to ensure the quality of the flexible options will be up to par with the rest of the institution’s more traditional offerings.

Flexible pathways are ideal for students who want to take courses outside traditional semester start and end dates, to accelerate their degree completion and to balance a complex life-work-school schedule. Another benefit of the program is that it will alleviate enrollment bottle-necks in general education and popular courses with large numbers of students.

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[1] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Term Enrollment Estimates: Spring 2013,” 2013. Accessed at

[2] Doug Lederman, “Enrollment Decline Picks Up Speed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 17, 2013. Accessed at

[3] Elain Allen and Jeff Seaman, “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” Babson Survey Research Group, 2013. Accessed at

This article is the first of a two-part series on the topic of flexible programming for adult learners. In the conclusion, Shanley explores a few of the major challenges involved with creating this program. Click here to read the conclusion of this series.

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