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Serving Diverse Learner Needs in Higher Education


Higher ed will have to keep pace with the speed of change it encountered during the pandemic to effectively serve students. Learners need diverse, just-in-time and outcome-focused education to succeed from the get-go.

Society has faced many changes in recent years, and higher education is no different. At a time when learners (who have decades of work experience) are more skeptical of higher ed’s value, it’s critical for institutions to create an environment where these learners can get the credentials they need and deserve to stay relevant in the job market. In this interview, Rebekah Woods discusses the evolution of learner needs, the challenges to meeting these needs and strategies to help maintain enrollment numbers in the time of an enrollment cliff.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen learner needs in higher ed evolve over recent years?

Rebekah Woods (RW): Society has faced a lot of change, and higher ed isn’t exempt from that. There has been a significant increase in mental health services over the last few years. There’s increased anxiety among students for a variety of reasons. Some who finished high school during the pandemic feel less comfortable in in-person classes now. For some of our traditional students, we’re starting to see parents encouraging their kids to do more in-person things to strengthen those social skills.

From the employer side of things, we’ve always received feedback about needing stronger written communication skills and soft skills, but that has been increasing. We are also seeing a call for more leadership skills and teamwork. That’s been impacted by the lack of social engagement we all went through during the pandemic.

We also saw institutions move and respond quickly during the pandemic, much quicker than the typical pace of higher ed. That increased tempo won’t go away anytime soon. We’ll need to continue meeting individual learner needs in various ways that work for them. And learners are expecting a lot from us. They want the same level of flexibility they experienced during the pandemic, and we need to be able to provide that whenever possible.

Evo: What are some challenges institutions are facing when trying to meet learner demands?

RW: A key challenge is that higher ed moves at the pace of higher ed, as I referenced earlier. Changes typically must be researched, tested and piloted. You need to build buy-in across the campus in order for it to be a sustainable change rather than the flavor of the month. Building a culture and process at an institution for change to move more swiftly and proactively is a constant challenge. Innovations also come with a cost. With declining enrollments and revenue, higher ed must be creative to still be able to invest in new strategies that meet students’ needs. We also want to continue offering a diversity of instructional modalities to ensure students get the education they need when they need it and how they need it.

For example, our community has a large agricultural industry, so there are seasons where people will be working and not able to attend school. They need a lot of flexibility throughout the year to be able to stop out and return without being impacted negatively. We know a lot of potential students chose to not attend school during the pandemic. In the next few years, we absolutely expect an increase in adult learners entering higher ed for the first time. They may be working now, but they’re going to need some type of credential to stay competitive and advance in the workforce. Everything our colleges have been doing up till now has been great, but it will need to be polished and continuously improved upon going forward.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome those challenges and prepare the institution to become more future-proof?

RW: There are many ways schools can work with adult learners to ensure students get credit for the work and life experiences they bring. Every institution should have a process in place that addresses this. Students should be able to demonstrate what they know without having to waste time and money unnecessarily. It’s a common process in many community colleges but should be available across the board.

Another pretty common option in community colleges is curriculum pathways or ladders, which students can earn multiple credentials along the path that leads to a degree. If they choose or are otherwise unable to complete the full degree, they still have a credential—or multiple—of value that can open doors for them in the workforce.

But the most important way to future-proof any institution is focusing on your culture. That’s a real priority for us because we want a positive student-centered culture, but we have to be intentional about it. We base our culture on Galen Emanuele’s five principles of a Yes-And culture. One of them is embracing change and failure. Our world moves quickly, but you have to embrace innovation and risk which also means embracing change. It’s not always going to work well, and sometimes you’ll fail, but you move on and try something else. You need an agreed upon set of priorities and values in place as the foundation for all work.

Evo: How has your institution been able to maintain positive enrollment numbers in a time of a looming enrollment cliff?

RW: In fall 2023 we did exceed our pre-COVID enrollment, and we’re excited to see our campus community growing again. The Tri-Cities community is growing, so if CBC weren’t growing alongside it, then we would be doing something wrong. We’ve worked long and hard to become a trusted and respected partner in our community to always have a seat at the table. Being responsive is a part of our Yes-And culture, and our community members know we’re going to help them where they need it.

The secret to our success is our people. Our students are their first priority. We make decisions based on what is best for our students. When students come to campus, they feel like we want them here and that we care about them. That goes for both inside and outside the classroom. We’re going to do what we need to get them here, keep them here and help them succeed. That means investing in resources on campus and building relationships with employers and the community. We invested in our recruitment, outreach, marketing, communications team and student support.

Your people are the institution. Your institution is not defined by your buildings but by your people. We work long and hard to make sure we’re not settling when we hire. We want to hire and onboard the right people, then support them as they grow as employees. We ask our employees to go above and beyond for our students, which means we need to do the same for our employees. Whatever they need to be successful we’re here to respond and provide for them.

Evo: What are some trends you’re keeping an eye on within the community college or higher ed space?

RW: The first thing everyone will say: artificial intelligence. It’s certainly not a trend but a game-changer for our world. It’s going to vastly change how we educate and prepare students. It’s a skillset our students will need to be successful employees.

And it expands beyond AI—there are other technologies that higher ed leaders need to keep pace with. We can’t embrace every innovation, so we need to be intentional with what we want to work with. There must be some level of stability to avoid taking on every new technology. We need to see where we can improve and make our operations efficient.

Society’s perception of higher ed’s value is declining. Traditional degrees aren’t what everyone is focused on anymore. We need to be flexible in meeting people’s needs—whatever they may be. That’s why I love the community college mission because we offer a variety of options. We have the traditional liberal arts, holistic and well-rounded education for many students who want to start here and transfer onto one of our university partners. We also have many short-term and long-term workforce certificates, degrees and trainings. We have to prepare students to step into the workforce and be successful from day one.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RW: Columbia Basin college is a Hispanic-Serving Institution—one of eight in Washington State. 49% of our students this quarter identify as Hispanic. We are intentional about serving the needs of our Hispanic students while serving all students. Our student population mirrors the population of the communities we serve. Our entire strategic plan is equity-centered and focused on student needs. It’s a journey we’re on, learning together and investing a lot of time and resources into making sure we’re consistently serving all our students.