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How Can Continuing Ed Units Work to Scale?

Properly scaling a Continuing Education unit could have benefits across an entire community, region and even nation.
Properly scaling a Continuing Education unit could have benefits across an entire community, region and even nation.

How a Continuing Education unit works to scale enrollments can determine student outcomes. Depending on institutional culture and the strategies deployed, intentional, measured scaling could drive an institution to new heights.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can Continuing Ed divisions work to scale enrollments while delivering a high-quality experience to learners?

Kelly Otter (KO): There are many ways to have this conversation, beginning with considering the many kinds of institutions doing this work. There’s a saying in our field that if you have seen one school of continuing, professional and online (PCO) studies, you’ve seen one. There is no real consistency among us in terms of our structure, institution, culture and history—all of which must be taken into consideration. The cultural landscape, the larger institution, the foundation on which a PCO is built, as well as the institutional brand mission and the PCO’s complementarity all are key elements of any strategy to scale. The PCO or Continuing Education school-level mission must be aligned with—but also differentiated from—the larger institutional mission. 

This doesn’t sound technical or tactical at all, but this thought exercise is part of laying down the strategy because learners and prospective students will listen to the messaging and hear a promise. If students are engaging with the school, and they understand your brand, marketing message, brand promise but you don’t deliver on it, ultimately there will be a credibility issue and the strategy won’t thrive. For example, an institution is a well-regarded publicly funded research university, and its PCO markets to and promises quality programs and resources for adult learners in professionally oriented programs. But courses are held in multiple buildings filled with residential undergraduates, and adult students are required to navigate a complex campus for financial, academic and support resources, which leaves the student feeling disconnected between promise and reality. 

Structural decisions must be made, so it’s important to ask yourself whether your PCO unit is embedded within a college or functioning as a support school or unit. Are you a standalone school with your own dean who reports to a provost? Does your dean have the same kinds of responsibilities and accountabilities as the others—or is there merely some overlap? There’s a whole range between those two that will indicate how you go about designing programming, then selecting the mechanisms around which to build a narrative about the mission and programming—how to promote, market, conduct enrollment and admissions, and the impact of the institution’s resources on all this. Does the institution have the resources to set up or support new program development, instructional design, marketing, enrollment and all of those implementation details and investments needed?

Institutions might have the resources to put a structure in place, but they may not have the resources to scale it. Often, there are partners or OPMs involved, but that involves a whole separate conversation about whether or not an organization should work with another entity. That decision is also an extension of the kind of structure in place, what the institution can afford to invest in and what the institution’s appetite for potential financial loss or deferred financial gains might be. All these questions extend from the type of institution, structure and culture.

Evo: Can you touch on how local industries and local cultures might assist in developing these programs?

KO: Several years ago when we were thinking about developing a program in cybersecurity, we consulted copious amounts of data from all kinds of open-source and reliable partners who conducted research on demands in higher ed and labor and economic trends. There was clearly a need for cybersecurity education. What was not clear—because the term cybersecurity is so all-encompassing and general—is that many different places at a university feel like they can and should offer cybersecurity programming. So, what we needed to do was disaggregate this research and start to look at all academic and research areas that touched on the subject.   

We talked to our alumni association and asked about alum, who—regardless of school—were working in the tech and cybersecurity space. Our aim was to test and crosscheck some of the quantitative research against some qualitative research that we would gather through focus groups comprised of people with a strong interest in the institution. These alums had reliable data and felt very strongly about the kinds of talent they needed to hire. They knew which skills were hard to attract and cultivate in existing employees. We had robust conversations and heard from local industry about what local industry needed, but we had the added benefit of these people being from within our institution and therefore understanding our educational culture. They knew the institution’s values and were committed to proliferating them within their industry.

Evo: How can CE leaders take advantage of the global nature of today’s higher ed marketplace?

KO: That’s a great question because it’s a turbulent one—domestically and internationally. PCOs first need to understand their portfolio and mission, and find ways to conduct research to see where they may align with emerging markets, emerging populations in other, unexplored. It’s harder to get data globally than it is domestically because we have resources that we’re all accustomed to using. It’s not so easy on the global stage, with the added challenge of international student mobility being slowed and challenged by the pandemic.

There may be large and growing markets in other parts of the world, but geopolitical tensions among countries might slow people’s ability to get their visas to attend school in person. Some of that’s turning around now, but we need to heed the lessons of the last couple of years and build our delivery and curriculum design mechanisms to prevent these kinds of disruptions from happening again. Your research needs to test, to validate whether the competencies you’re measuring and the content you’re delivering (if you were to deliver it using technology mediated methods) are meeting the needs of local and domestic industries.

In some places, yes. Some places maybe, no. In areas like policy, for example, there may be benefits to collaborating or students from other regions understanding Western or American policy in contrast to their own countries or to help them have better context of local policies. In contrast to areas at the other end of the spectrum like data analytics or data science, those kinds of concepts and skills may translate quite well across other boundaries and across you know, languages and cultures.

Evo: How can CE divisions leverage and market stackable credentials or stackable credentialing models to transform single enrollments into lifelong learning engagements?

KO: Many good minds are tackling this project right now, and I’m not one of the leaders in this space—although I do talk to people who are. One has to understand the reason behind something being stackable, the whole that you want students to achieve. If we look at a degree program, we think about the ultimate knowledge and skill sets we want students to achieve. So, we design our curricula, every little building block of it—each syllabus, lesson, project—as a component of this whole set of knowledge and competencies.

And it isn’t so easy to disaggregate that and to build it into a stackable model. It’s the process of reverse engineering, which is very difficult to do with an existing product. But maybe with a new product, faculty can think about reverse engineering that ultimate whole set and break it down into subsets of knowledge. There can also be specializations stacked onto each other that comprise this larger whole set of knowledge and skills that comprises a graduate education.

Certificate units are different. The folks doing curriculum development in the noncredit certificate space are different than those doing curriculum development and the degree space. But if those groups can come together and start looking at how subsets of skills, knowledge and abilities that can be constructed can break away from our traditional notions of degree construction. We need different building blocks, rather than just trying to force this monolithic thing that exists, trying to break it down and build back up. We need to build, and we need to build soon.

Evo: What trends should CE leaders keep a close eye on over the next five years?

KO: This is nothing new, but how the people the institution sees as its core learners are shifting in terms of population demographics. Birth rates are declining in certain areas and growing in others. Migration patterns are changing. So, the people attending four-year institutions are changing. Hopefully, there’s enough pressure that we start to think about access and affordability differently than we did in the last 20 years or so. We need to look at the trends of support—federal support, state support, philanthropic support—and the way our institutions are structured and why, what our costs really are and what our prices really are.

Because increasingly, it’s hard for people to afford a four-year institute. So, we’re looking at the populations who have not completed that four-year degree, those who can’t access it and those who can be served by PCO units. Who it is reteaching, what they need to learn and how they need to learn it is an extension of these other kinds of trends. The 12–15% drop in community college participation will have a cascading, long-term effect on college enrollments and workers’ employability. That’s a huge area where PCOs could work together with community colleges or within their own universities to innovate ways to reach populations that could get lost if we’re not proactive.

 This interview was edited for length and clarity.