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Defining the Next Normal for Higher Education

As higher education looks to become more innovative to respond to the future, they need to assess current resources and expertise, building upon what they have to create a collaborative learning ecosystem.

Continuing Education and Workforce Education have been delivering the programming the modern learner needs for decades. This means the institution has the resources at their disposal to deliver a great student experience. Moving past the traditional model of an institution, facilities across different departments can come together to meet their institution’s mission: serve their students. 

This article is a segment from the webinar, “Insights on Higher Ed’s Next Normal”, focused on higher education’s new normal, sharing insights from presidents of higher ed institutions about what this new normal will look like and what institutions need to do to survive and thrive.

Amrit Ahluwalia: What can future-oriented colleges do to start meeting the needs of modern learners? 

Phil Regier (PR): In order to meet the needs for prior learners as universities, we have to understand that there is knowledge at the center of this organization. The research that goes on, the professors who teach, everything that goes on in a traditional university is enormously valuable.

When we listen to industry, they talk about very short-term goals, but we know what these students ultimately need to be educated, if they’re going to have a degree. That education consists of learning how to learn, connecting the dots between very disparate concepts and topics, working in groups, etc. 

A very important part of the emerging institution the need to create something that remembers the primacy of degrees and knowledge core to all of our institutions, while recognizing the importance of an emerging learning lifecycle. We are far beyond this idea of topping out at a master’s degree in your late twenties. The fact is people will be forever weaving in and out of universities. The important thing is to make lifelong learning a pillar of what the university does. This way, the degree- granting and lifelong learning portion are working in tandem throughout the learning cycle.

AA: How does that start to play out when you’re thinking of a system view?

Thomas Stith (TS): We are in a long season for lifelong learners. It’s going to be important to normalize individuals coming in and out of the educational process because our students are people too. They want a welcoming environment that provides a pathway to educational success, whether a single, two-year or four-year credential.

That’s why we’re looking at our community college system and various modes of instruction. We need to have flexibility moving forward to meet the needs of all students and providing learning platforms conducive to their specific learning environments. 

To that end, the flexibility to tailor education to student needs is essential because they’re used to a menu. What’s going to be convenient for me? What will fit my lifestyle, what’s the individualized plan that this college or university can offer me?

Ultimately, it’s going to be very important for us to show the value proposition of each credential. What’s the economic benefit? What jobs are available at the end? How can a student enhance their career? 

Sue Ellspermann (SE): At Ivy Tech, we spent three years standing up something we call career coaching and employer connections. We now have 150 plus FTEs serving in three primary roles: career coaches and work and learn professionals on every campus. They cover both placement and internships as well as employer consultants.

You need a concierge-like ability to work with a brand-new applicant, to pick their credential, to help them get their internship, work-and-learn, apprenticeship, etc. Then, students need to return and scale, working with a career coach in true partnership with industry. We’re making sure to fill a pipeline while helping each student actualize their career and life goals.

There’s a whole lot more yet to be done. Imagine if we truly interlaced career development throughout education, with a coach who helps you figure out what to do next in your journey. There’s a whole lot that we have yet to have been challenged to do because we didn’t have this kind of learner before. Now, the game has changed.

Madeline Purmariega (MP): A decade ago, everyone was saying higher education would be wiped out by free access. What we found ten years later is that 80% of those who took a MOOC, already had a bachelor’s degree—they were trying to earn the skills they needed for an interview, promotion or personal interest. And they didn’t quite take off in the way everyone imagined.

Now, how do we take that lesson and apply it today? It’s about stackable credentials. As much as we advance in higher education, we come back to a concept from the ’70s or ’80s, which were occupational completion points—I want to say microcredentials. 

Those milestones will be important, too. That students are going to come in and out of their degree, particularly in open-access institutions, where we bundle this course for a credential. For that one, then stacks up to the next one, and looking at stackable credentials. So, how do we build in emerging industries for our regions and communities while packaging offerings to students in a highly personalized way. This idea of come to a window and taking a number is not going to work. That’s why I stand by the emerging consume-driven innovation and what we have to do as institutions to ensure its success.

Frank Dooley (FD): I’m at a campus with 35,000 online learners, most of them in their 30s. Of the 18-year-olds that come to Purdue grew up taking tests. Universities like Purdue are built organizations or institutions that replicated that experience.

About 50% of the students at our school who start in a major have transferred into another by the time they graduate, reflecting the fact that they come with so much ability and curiosity.  

Non-traditional learners aren’t interested in joining many clubs, unless one is tied to their profession. We also emphasize career counselling and show the students they have resources to help them. We are doing something that may be worth emulating at other institutions. In addition to your report card at the end of each term, we also have what we call a skills report. The skills report is what we’re trying to track—the development of professional skills, broad skills, teamwork, communication, critical thinking.

AA: What role do you believe Continuing and Workforce Education divisions can play in realizing this new normal, especially where stackability is concerned? 

Thomas Stith (TS): Clearly, Workforce and Continuing Education both provide short-term knowledge and skills that can serve as an entry into or advancement within the workplace. They have careers now, and they need tools that will help them progress. The short-term credentials provide a quick turnaround and return on the learner’s investment.

The workforce credential often groups together and modularizes the knowledge and skills from associate degree. So, there’s a quicker turnaround time. It’s makes an individual much more marketable in the workplace. As we look forward, short-term workforce credentials are going to be key. 

FD: The challenge is building pathways. Sue and I are both based in Indiana, and we’re trying to work very collaboratively to give Ivy Tech students an understanding of what a pathway might look like at Purdue Global. We’ve talked about a current student’s consumerism. When they come to us, they’re trying to understand economic value of doing so.

Where I would suggest caution is in measuring a particular degree’s economic value. We might be trying to cut things too fine at times because part of economic value lies in employee performance. We talk generationally about one of the challenges we face today, that some don’t even show up for work. So, how much of it was the individual and how much was the degree? We also have to look at how we get the Department of Ed and others evaluating us externally to say, “No, this is exactly what we want them doing.” That’s a real challenge for institutions at this point.

Right now, Continuing Ed is almost viewed as an auxiliary within the institution that really doesn’t matter all that much. But what we’re talking about doing is dedicating critical resources to address industry needs within our states.

AA: How do you empower Continuing Education to play this greater role?

SE: One of the things we did this year is change our metric for headcount. We don’t count headcount as revenue-generating or credit-bearing anymore. We’ve opened it up to all headcount, which gives equal credit to all students— non-credit, non-traditional students—and revenue-generating opportunities.

We tend to want to be compared to our four-year partners, but our headcount is different than others’. Ours are part-time, real-life with complexities. We want Continuing Ed, non-credit training to stack into PLA, through any method.

People will come in and leave at different points, only to return. And a student is a student—we should treat them as such. They should have a student number, as we call it. They should have a student ID, no matter where they come from within the institution.

Now we treat them as a student, we follow up, provide them with career coaching—treat them in the same way. I think that’s one of the things we have done that has been very well-received—changing behaviors on 19 campuses. Because they all count, every student counts. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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