Cathy Sandeen, former ACE vice president for education attainment and innovation, looks at flexible services and tuition models, data-driven management and alternative credentials.
American higher education has evolved over time, and we find ourselves in an era today of increasingly dynamic and potentially disruptive transformation. Continuing and professional education leaders are quite accustomed to rapid change and agile adaptation. That is necessary when one’s work involves contributing to workforce development, often within a volatile self-supported environment. The need to constantly develop innovative programs and services is in the DNA of continuing education (CE) leaders. In this new era, the traditional strengths of CE will be increasingly recognized and appreciated by the broader campus community. There is no time like the present for stepping up and taking on a broader leadership role.
CE units have traditionally focused on non-traditional students, but the enormous scale of this segment is becoming more and more apparent to policy makers and the general public alike. More than 36 million adults between 25 and 64 years of age have completed some college, but don’t have a degree, according to Lumina Foundation. Further, there are 44.5 million American adults with high school diplomas, but no college experience.
This is a massive market for higher education institutions to serve, and is especially important now given the declining numbers of traditional-age (18 to 22-year-old) students and the workforce’s need for employees who hold postsecondary credentials. Furthermore, the Department of Education expects the number of non-traditional students to rise at a far higher rate than the number of traditional-age students. For all of these reasons, and because it’s the right thing to do, I predict many more institutions will develop strategies to serve more non-traditional students.
It’s important to remember that within this massive and growing marketplace of non-traditional students, there is great diversity. Institutions must be innovative in segmenting programs and services to meet the complex needs of these students as they pursue degrees, certificates and other credentials.
I’ve identified a few emerging trends institutions might consider in their quest to serve more non-traditional students.
1. Variable Wrap-Around Services and Flexible Tuition Models
Non-traditional students represent a wide range of sub-populations and their needs are as varied as their characteristics and experiences. There is no one size that fits all for these students, so institutions need to be flexible and innovative in serving them.
For example, institutions might consider offering tiered levels of service that provide students with the services they need before, during and after graduation. Each tier or bundle might be priced differently depending on the particular student’s needs.
Some students need “high touch” advising and other services throughout their time on campus. Other students are more self-sufficient and need fewer of these services. Many students expect some form of career counseling and preparation throughout their programs, but some are employed and are focused on their educational and degree attainment. Non-traditional working, commuting students generally do not have time to take advantage of the campus environment and services provided to residential students. Student veterans have unique needs. Online students frequently pay an additional technology fee for their courses.
Given this spectrum of needs, and to the degree that state and institutional policy allow, an institution might consider charging variable fees depending on the wrap-around services provided to different categories of students. This unbundling of services provides flexibility and potential cost savings to students. Of course, this approach also requires careful analysis and a clear understanding of cost and cross-subsidies.
CE units generally have the ability to set fees, have sound financial data and are thus well-positioned to pilot an unbundling/variable pricing concept.
2. Analytics and Data-Driven Management
We hear a lot about big data and learning analytics. As more tools to measure all aspects of institutional performance become available, it’s increasingly possible for colleges and universities to use that data to improve student learning outcomes and improve decision making. This trend will only grow as more performance measurement tools become available.
However, before jumping down the analytics rabbit hole, campus leaders must be completely sure about what they’re measuring and why. They must stay focused on what matters and what aligns with their overall strategy and goals. Within the massive amount of behavioral data at our fingertips, only certain data are truly useful. These metrics should be continually reviewed and refined. CE leaders already are highly data-driven and are in a position to assist in campus efforts to identify and use key data indicators.
3. Alternative Credentials
Part of the flexibility of an institution comes from student demand for specific outcomes from their education. The four-year degree is the gold standard and will continue to be for some time. The lifetime earnings potential for college graduates far exceeds that of high school graduates. However, many new forms of non-degree credentials have emerged that may be helpful to many students in the current educational and economic contexts. Though most students will pursue associate or bachelor degrees, others now have the option to earn high-quality certificates with labor market value. Still other students may consider a series of highly-specialized micro-credentials recognized by employers.
The Lumina Foundation has defined attainment not by degrees, per se, but by attainment of knowledge and skills that will support student success in a changing, knowledge-based economy. This includes certificate completion along with degree completion. We will see more traditional institutions that attempt to integrate new forms of credentialing into their more traditional program offerings. Given their experience with certificate programs and other alternative credentials, there is an opportunity for CE units to play a strong role in piloting these innovations on their campuses.
There is no doubt that providing degrees and credentials that lead to employment is and has been a critical function of higher education. But I fear the push to more and more granular credentials can lead to reductionism and over-vocationalization. We risk losing the traditional strength of American higher education if we focus too narrowly on providing students with job-related knowledge while sacrificing more generally applicable, “liberal arts” or non-cognitive skills (such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication) that last a lifetime through multiple career transitions. We need to avoid creating a two-tier education system, where some students get the “whole package,” including broader liberal arts skills, while others simply get job-related competencies.
This dilemma presents an interesting challenge for CE units that traditionally have tended to focus on narrowly-defined professional programs. To contribute to our country’s current postsecondary education needs, CE units should develop the capacity to embed broad liberal arts skills within their professional programs. Some of our colleagues have made significant strides toward this goal. Given the agility of continuing education units, I have every confidence that more will rise to the challenge.
Our postsecondary attainment challenges are significant, but fortunately we have many tools in the toolbox to help us make a difference. I strongly encourage CE units to tap into their deep wells of ingenuity and agility to experiment with these and other innovations, and to play a leadership role in advancing the national goal of increasing the number of Americans with higher education credentials.
 “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” Lumina Foundation, 2013. Accessed at http://www.luminafoundation.org/stronger_nation/report/
 Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2010.
Published originally on The EvoLLLution, an online source for news and research about the impact of non-traditional programs on the higher education industry and society.