Conscious Development of Continuing Ed in Community Colleges
Non-credit programming is becoming an increasingly popular choice in postsecondary education, and colleges need to begin not just developing these programs, but ensuring they deliver students a high-quality education that will get them back into the workforce. In this interview, Frank Nunez discusses developing non-credit offerings at community colleges, adapting to this new environment, and how the regional approach will help establish growth.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): When it comes to developing and managing non-degree, non-credit offerings geared towards non-traditional students at a community college, what are some of the key obstacles that a leader is going to face?
Frank Nunez (FN): We have five colleges that we do it for, plus the whole regional community. So, the biggest obstacles that we face is developing short-term classes that meet our employers’ needs today and tomorrow. We go out there, meet with employers, talk to them, go to different networking events, so that we can ask them what their needs, what they see in their future, and where they need help.
We have strong partners in the business community here, and they’re really good about relaying that information. We bring them in as advisories when we develop courses, and it really helps us tailor them to fit market needs. But technological advancements are happening at an unprecedented speed. So, for us, just trying to stay on top of that is one of the bigger challenges that we have. We have to build flexibility into our classes, so if something changes, we can adjust our curriculum accordingly. But the biggest obstacle we have ever faced is the COVID-19 pandemic.
All we had were live classrooms. Within a month’s time, we were able to convert almost all of our classes to online training. We did still see a very significant decline in our enrollment, just like every other organization across the U.S. did. This was because employers didn’t know where the economy was going, and they didn’t want to pay for professional development training during this uncertain time. It was at the bottom of their list of priorities. Instead of focusing more on professional development training, we decided to focus on continuing education and custom contract education.
There’s a lot of CARES grant money out there that we could go after. Since most people were at home, they had the time on their hands to take the types of classes that can prepare their career for the next level once the pandemic was over.
Evo: How challenging has it been to adapt to that need, and how much effort does it take from staff to be able to deliver the high-quality experience that any college is trying to accomplish but in this totally different modality?
FN: When we first started doing our online training classes, you could tell that there was a big lack of engagement. A lot of it had to do with the community out there. They weren’t used to online meetings, so everybody was shy. But as the months have gone on, and everything has converted to an online format, you see the increase in engagement.
One of our staff members is always involved in the training. As we reach certain levels that we map out ahead of time, we’ll bring up a poll question to reinforce what students just learned but we also ask questions that help spark conversation as well. Our instructors are getting very good at engaging students now. Before, they would wait for questions and no one would ask any. Now, we typically use two screens: one where we put all video, and one where the class is conducted, so our instructors can just randomly start calling out people. Everyone is a little shy at first, but you just need a couple people to get it going. And once they start talking, everyone gets more comfortable and engages more.
Evo: Why are organizations like NCCET important to facilitate growth for this particular segment of our space?
FN: It’s a really exciting time to be a part of this organization, and what we find now is that it creates dialogue between educational institutions across the country. It’s something that we need because a lot of us are sitting here trying to solve our problems alone, and we don’t have to do that. When you have an organization like this, it creates forums wherein we can discuss our issues and solutions, and it just makes the machine work a little bit better for each of us. Each region has different needs and issues, but it’s helped us come to a consensus allowing us to put out effective training now.
NCCET is a governing body that helps us certify our training programs. But while we certify our training programs, they actually allow us to share these certifications amongst members. So, there could be programs that I never thought of before in my region but that they certify, and we can try. In being a member, we have access to that–to resources, to professional development training, and to three regional conferences a year. An organization like NCCET is there to help us grow and survive, especially during the pandemic.
Evo: How does the regional approach that NCCET is launching really help to support the work that you and your colleagues do?
FN: We have our own issues in our own regions, and this regional approach allows us to narrow our focus. Our goals are still aligned nationally, but we can establish goals that fit our needs here too.
As a regional director, I am the liaison between NCCET and the member schools here in the region. As a partner in California, I’m appointing four regional area managers. These area managers are spread out, so each of them oversees 14 to 16 schools, and their job is to create more active members in NCCET, to develop training programs.
So, we’re going to have professional development every other month, and we’re going to rotate area managers, so they can take turns doing it. We invite the other members of our region to participate. And we’ll develop quarterly forums, so that we can have that dialogue between ourselves at a regional level. That will help fix our specific issues.
Evo: How are you hoping to establish the South Central region and to bring folks together for that common cause?
FN: I’ve been going through NCCET’s membership database from the past years, and one of the biggest issues I’ve found is the West Coast is not very representative in the organization. The further east you go, the more memberships you find. A lot of national organizations start on the East Coast and work their way west. So, my goal is first to establish area managers, then to establish membership. We need to get some active membership, and the only way we’re going to do that is by developing some intrinsic value in what we can offer them.
If we can get something growing on a bimonthly or quarterly basis, we can establish some value here. It’s going to be a learning curve for us, but it’s something that we’re excited about and that we’re looking forward to doing.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how you see the West region expanding and how this regional approach can really help bring a little conscious development to community college continuing ed in California?
FN: I really like the regional approach. It allows me to focus my efforts more because everything is divided into areas. By doing that, I don’t have to worry about Southern California, or the states surrounding me. I have my specific area. It’s going to help me achieve my goals and the organization’s goals. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to move things forward.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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