Published on 2018/07/30

Building a Platform for Future Growth at Two Year Community Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Building a Platform for Future Growth at Two Year Community Colleges
By prioritizing and resourcing what matters, two-year colleges can implement high-quality technology infrastructures that allow them to deliver the experience their students expect while simultaneously positioning themselves for long-term growth that capitalizes on future trends.

Two-year colleges are facing and managing the same challenging market conditions as their colleagues in the four-year sector, but with increased competition and greater variance in available funding. They also are trying to serve students who think and behave more like customers, and finding ways of bringing the Amazon-like experience to higher education. To meet the needs of their evolving market while positioning themselves for growth, the Harper College Division of Workforce Solutions (Harper CE) turned to Destiny One, the customer lifecycle management (CLM) system by Destiny Solutions. Harper CE includes continuing education, workforce development, community education, and contract training in addition to adult-focused credit programs. To learn more about how Harper CE is leveraging the Destiny One system, click here.

In this interview, Mark Mrozinski discusses shifting trends in student expectations of higher education, and explains how Harper CE will leverage its new CLM system to meet the current and future demands of its students and the labor market.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role do Harper’s workforce development and non-credit divisions play in creating access to postsecondary programming for non-traditional students?

Mark Mrozinski (MM): Higher education is shifting to serve a broader demographic of learners. Traditionally, folks think of postsecondary students as 18-year-olds transitioning directly from high school, but more adults in the workforce are returning to school for the training they need to respond to a changing economy. Our perception of the “traditional” student is changing every year.

In our continuing education and workforce development programs at Harper College, we serve those returning adult students. On average, our students are around 38 years old, and for many of them are returning to higher education for the second or third time. Most of the time, they’re not looking for a full degree program–they’re looking for a credential to help them progress professionally.

Our students’ demand aligns with industry-wide trends towards modularized education, where microcredentials or certifications are becoming more in-demand than larger bachelor’s or associate’s degrees. After all, workers are often looking for certifications that verify their specific skill sets. In our experience, these smaller packages have more meaning to employers because they represent hard skills that indicate a new hire can hit the ground running.

Evo: What does it take to properly serve adult learners looking for short-term engagements?

MM: That’s the demographic that we’re focused on, and everything we do is geared towards that market, from how we register students to how we serve them in the classroom and format our classes.

We offer short, flexible courses with multiple entry dates so that students don’t have to wait for the start of a new semester. We offer multiple payment options, and accept payment from third-party providers like employers or the workforce system for unemployed students. We also deliver the books to the classroom on the first day so that the students don’t have to deal with the bookstore line. Everything they need is right there from the outset.

Even the teaching style we use for adult learners differs from how we teach 16-, 18-, or 20-year-olds. We employ adult-focused learning principles, where the adult is at the center of the learning experience rather than a receiver of knowledge. Of course, we certify their education at the end of the program, but we emphasize the fact that the instructor and the student are partners throughout the learning process. The student has to take responsibility for their learning, while the instructor serves as a resource, guide and coach.

Evo: It seems that Harper is trying to remove as many barriers as possible to retain students.

MM: We’ve been playing with the concept of the flipped classroom, where we give students the opportunity to have a self-directed learning experience. With the flipped classroom we deliver content online, through our LMS. Students process the content on their own, then come to the classroom where the instructor leads an exposition of that content. In our experience, this method is more effective for adult learners: Students are engaged the whole time, rather than simply listening to someone talking at the front of the classroom. Adult students are more comfortable reviewing the material on their own.

I remember talking to our president about the need to build an adult-centric learner model, and he had some very pointed questions for me: “What do you mean by ‘good adult teaching’?” I listed many of the things I mentioned above, and he replied, “So, ‘adult’ teaching is just good teaching.”

That’s what we’re seeing as a broader industry trend—a shift towards “good adult teaching.” Even in high schools, we’re seeing that many of the things we’ve been doing with adult students for years are trickling into education as a whole. We’re seeing more flipped classrooms, and more collaborative learning where the teacher is more a designer, coach and resource than a wise lecturer.

Evo: What were some of the challenges you were trying to address in looking for a new system?

MM: Our old system had essentially been discontinued. We saw the switch to the new platform as an opportunity to improve the design and delivery of non-traditional education at Harper.

One of the things that we needed to do, first and foremost, was reduce barriers to registration. Prospective students coming to our website aren’t comparing our registration system to other colleges and universities—they’re comparing it to the online shopping experience offered by Amazon and other online vendors.

Unfortunately, most online enrollment registration systems in higher ed grew up around the physical structure of the college or university, and were built with an administrative focus in mind rather than the needs of the student. You know what those older systems looked like: they had an admissions module, a curriculum module, a registration module, a finance module, a financial aid module. The student navigated the online system just as they would if they walked on campus and you sent them from one office to another to another. There was no continuity of service.

That doesn’t align with what we’re seeing on-campus anymore. Most community colleges are shifting to a “one stop” on-campus model for student services, because they realize the folly in making a student jump from department to department in search of answers.

Prior to implementing Destiny One, that lesson hadn’t carried over into Harper CE’s online environment.

Students expect a seamless online experience. They don’t want to have to work between departments—they want to use a process that looks familiar based on their experiences with  commercial sites. That was the experience we were looking for when we chose Destiny One.

We also needed reassurance that our new platform would be easy and reliable for our students to use. Adult learners have so many options for higher education. We’re not the only provider of certification training: when a student searches for Cisco certification in Google, it brings up multiple providers. The last thing that we wanted to happen was for a student to navigate to our site, run into a barrier as they try to register, and move to the next company in the Google search.

We were looking for a product that could push more students to use online registration exclusively. Given that half of our student body is above the age of 38, that was a tall order. The product we had been using previously just wasn’t intuitive enough for older learners, so many hadn’t migrated online.

The next thing that we were looking for was something that could encourage us to move more strongly into integrated digital marketing. Under our old system, we didn’t consistently leverage the data we gathered through our registration platform to inform our marketing efforts. It would have required a lot of back-end work from our staff. Destiny One will enable us to better integrate and direct our digital marketing initiatives.

Finally, we were looking for a platform that would reduce the amount of staff time spent in the system. Our old system was cumbersome from a back-end perspective, and when we were considering Destiny One, it was clear that the platform would free up a lot of time for our staff. Rather than focusing on data entry, our staff will now be able to spend more time out of the system focusing on ways to add value to our students.

Ultimately, we were looking to secure a product that would allow us to increase our market penetration by making us more visible, easier to navigate, and more strategic. Destiny One provides all of that.

Evo: How do you expect improved back end efficiency to change the staff experience that you’re able to deliver at Harper?

MM: I expect that it will have a drastic impact on course approvals. We offer about 1,200 courses a semester, and about 35 percent of those courses are new. That amounts to approximately 400 new courses a year. In our old platform, we had to hand-build a system to allow us to create, review and approve new courses, which was quite a lot of work for our team. The system required a large amount of maintenance and updating.

With Destiny One, we’re going to save scores of hours every semester in new course approvals. By releasing staff from the labour involved in the approval process, we can free them up to focus on ensuring that new course content is relevant and up to date. A new program can’t be random; it has to be aligned with student and workforce needs.

For everyone that was on the review team, Destiny One’s ability to offer an “Amazon” experience really was the stand-out. Don’t get me wrong, the increased staff time will be a “nice to have” that will allow us to focus on aligning ourselves with market demand. However, the student experience—giving them the intuitive, seamless online registration process that they rightly expect—was our number-one consideration as we moved forward.

Evo: Pricing and managing financial resources tend to be major concerns at the two-year college level. How did you overcome cost obstacles to go with the Destiny One system as opposed to something cheaper?

MM: Rather than taking the unique needs of non-traditional students into consideration, most community colleges simply apply their existing system of record for credit-bearing programming to non-credit courses. Typically, this infrastructure is not appropriate for workforce or non-credit students. It’s a quick fix, rather than a lasting one.

At Harper College, our continuing education and workforce development programs are 100-percent self-funded, so we had to build Destiny One into our cost structure. We anticipate that the payoff in increased market penetration will offset the licensing cost of Destiny One within two years.

Many community colleges have the resources and commitment to their non-traditional students to implement a purpose-built platform like Destiny One. It’s all about allocating resources to the things that matter: You can afford to do whatever you want, so long as you make it a priority. Nothing will grow unless you resource it. We chose to prioritize Destiny One over other initiatives because we felt that the time was right to position ourselves for growth over the next decade.

Evo: What impact do you expect the Destiny One Conference Manager module to have on the experience you’re delivering to niche audiences?

MM: We were looking for a module that would allow us to implement group or family registration because we have a very large youth program. The Conference Manager module stood out to us because it will improve service and access for our users.

Our youth program has a couple thousand students. Imagine having four children and having to log in four different times to register your kids for the same program. The Conference Manager is going to be an incredible problem solver for us, because it will facilitate those group registrations.

Another benefit is that it will allow us to grow our conference management abilities while reducing our overhead. We make a fairly slim margin on conferences right now. Our job is to support academic areas on campus that sponsor the conference, not create content. We needed a system that would reduce the amount of labour involved in hosting the conference by automating many of the processes that we were doing manually. At the same time, we wanted to improve the registration experience for the person attending the conference by giving them a more self-supported experience. The Conference Manager module accomplishes those goals for us.

Evo: That’s come up a number of times in our conversation: this idea of giving the consumer more control over their engagement with the institution and their capacity to drive it.

MM: As an online consumer myself, control and ease are what I expect. I’m often doing my shopping online at eleven o’clock at night. I’m often registering my children for events online. If I have to call a number or mail in a form, I’ll likely drop it. If a system allows me to register conveniently, intuitively—and without a screen that tells me I need to call the office—I’m much more likely to use the service. Our nightmare scenario is having a system that’s cumbersome, because the student will go someplace else.

Evo: What are some of Harper College’s divisional goals over the next few years, and how do you see Destiny One playing a role in accomplishing them?

MM:  One of our goals is to foster greater market penetration as measured by enrollment growth. We need to leverage Destiny One’s market data to increase our digital and social media presence to do that.

Another major goal is greater employer engagement. At some point in the future, we will be using the Corporate Engagement module to do that.

Evo: Do you expect that kind of non-credit programming to become more common, not only for non-traditional students but across the main campus? If so, do you hope to see your use of Destiny One become a model for how the rest of the institution manages those programs?  

MM: Yes and yes. That is a shift that will be driven by employers. If employers recognize microcredentials as much or more than they recognize a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, then higher education will swing accordingly. The market will decide.

In the conversations we’ve had with employers, and in the national data I’ve seen, it’s clear that employers feel a bit burnt. They feel that job applicants with bachelor’s degrees don’t have enough hard skills to accomplish what they need.

The workplace has become much more competitive for the entry-level worker, and employers need workers who can be productive, quickly. One thing that we can do in the non-credit workforce area is to focus on building those hard skills: skills that are measurable and certifiable, which can give the employer comfort in knowing that they can take a prospective employee and plug them into a new role without too much worry.

The cost of higher education is also playing into changes in the marketplace. For more and more families, it simply isn’t making sense. A bachelor’s degree can run into tens of thousands of dollars—over what period of time does it pay for itself, particularly when you consider that someone can get a similar job at a lower cost with a microcredential? Over the next decade, I think you’ll find more students opting out of a traditional path.

Another trend that I see disrupting the market is “shopping” for courses. We tend to think of education in a very traditional way: A student fills out an application, enrolls in an institution, stays there until they graduate, and then moves on. As education becomes an increasingly online experience, it’s going to become more à la carte, where students select courses from multiple institutions to put together a package of credentials that works for them. Those institutions will be selected by price, reputation and convenience. Some of the educational experience will be online, some of it will be blended, and some of it will be face-to-face. Tomorrow’s student won’t be bound by the same kind of traditions and structures that many of us knew as we moved through higher education. That’s going to shift the framework towards these smaller credentialing units, short term training and microcredentials.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about how you see Destiny One playing into the next few years of Harper College’s growth?

MM: I’m looking forward to seeing Destiny One up and running at Harper College, and I’m confident that our students will be thrilled with the new experience. In any one year, our retention rate is about 40 percent from year to year. That’s a lot of turnover in students, and it’s part of a short-term training paradigm. What that means for our work with Destiny One is that new students are constantly acquainting themselves with our online experience. It’s very different from a four-year university, where they have a steep learning curve in the first semester, but then they know how the system works. Our students are constantly learning the system, so we need to offer them something intuitive, which they can easily navigate and which puts up few barriers. Destiny One provides that, and I think it’s key for Harper College moving forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Click here to learn more about how Harper CE is leveraging the Destiny One system.

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Key Takeaways

  • As higher education becomes more aligned with employer needs, students will move towards a more modularized, à la carte approach to higher education, taking multiple programs, credentials and institutions into consideration to build the skill set they require.
  • Colleges must prioritize the online experience, not only to compete with other education providers but simply to keep pace with expectations of quality service.
  • With adult learners come adult expectations. Continuing ed programs must be prepared to offer a higher level of service and usability to students who may not intuitively understand online environments.