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Continuing Education Is Relevant in Uncertain Times

At a time when enrollment numbers continue to drop Continuing Education units are to be relied on. Their flexibility, affordability and connection to market needs make them essential in disruptive times.

Continuing Education’s evolution has accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive disruption it caused in the workplace and society. We have heard about the Great Resignation of millions of skilled workers opting out of work as they restructured their lives around pandemic restrictions. Some people found they could manage their lives and needs around a smaller financial footprint, while others made the decision to find remote work or try a different industry.

Higher education has also had to deal with the challenges the pandemic brought on. Enrollment has plummeted across the nation as students have simply failed to return. Part of this decline is related to health concerns and significant financial obstacles, but there is another elephant in the room that colleges and universities are grappling with: Do they still need us?

New employees are receiving signing bonuses, full benefits and wages they would never have seen if employers were not so desperate. The traditional path to a good job—a college education—has been circumvented by our new normal. People who would have been in our classes are now working without needing a postsecondary credential.

Faced with the challenge of finding skilled workers, some employers have embraced diversity, equity and belonging and are proactively engaging different communities. People of color, reentrants, high school seniors, nonnative English speakers and women are all being courted to help fill employment gaps. Right now, filling vacancies is the priority, and employers believe they can help new hires learn necessary skills later.

This series of events presents a unique opportunity for colleges and universities. Eventually, businesses that hired workers to fill needs are going to reach out to colleges to help those employees gain the skills the company requires to stay competitive. These conditions are especially favorable for community colleges that can respond quickly to businesses’ needs and have the flexibility to provide customized training.

Previously, higher education functioned smoothly on a prescribed view of how skills and education should be obtained. Schools tended to follow a semester-driven system in which general education courses were an important component. We focused on the academic pathway and the benefits a student obtained through this well-rounded experience. However, we can no longer operate in this environment.

Employers are asking colleges and universities to change, not because they don’t value the academic experience colleges provide but because their economic futures depend on seeing results now—not at the end of a two- or four-year journey. Additionally, many of those nontraditional workers businesses are trying to attract have not seen higher education as the opportunity many believe it to be. Many employers are asking leaders in higher education to look at our programs’ outcomes, and, if possible, help students gather skills and credentials without some of the required academic courses. This is where Continuing Education programming shines. These programs focus on the outcome, not the journey, and show an immediate return on investment.

This paradigm shift is causing a bit of a stir within academia, where many believe in the value and importance of the full academic experience. I believe that reaching into our programs and extracting the skill components into Continuing Education programs meets business and student needs while ensuring higher education remains relevant. If we are proactive and strategic, students who earn Continuing Education training or credentials can be incentivized to return to receive additional credentials. 

What does proactive look like? It means that Continuing Education and certificate programs are married to degrees and awarded college credits. It means partnering with our business communities and listening to their specific needs while crafting programs outside of our normal credit pathways. It means linking back to degree pathways when applicable.

We are taking this proactive approach at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. We recently created a program with a local health care provider that included a work readiness bootcamp for graduating high school seniors supplemented with entry-level physician office assistant training. It led to immediate employment for students, and HACC and the employer were able to map out Continuing Education pathways. These pathways coincide with both employer and student students, while keeping the College relevant to both.

I believe these types of employer/college partnerships are key to higher education maintaining a vital role within our communities. We can continue to showcase the value of our institutions, while creating opportunities and building equity. Whether in advanced manufacturing, health care or cybersecurity, higher education can play a valuable role through Continuing Education programs. Despite the headwinds we currently face, there is a unique opportunity to deploy programs differently, in a way that allows employers and students to interact with us and enjoy the immense benefits we provide.

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