The State of Continuing Education 2021

By Modern Campus – Published in Modern Campus (ND)  – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

In this report, Modern Campus identifies student engagement gaps educational providers are experiencing. Modern Campus surveyed 213 continuing education (CE) managers, academic executives and administrative executives in the U.S. (85%) and Canada (15%). The report offers recommendations on how to integrate alternative programming into course offerings, as well as technological outreach solutions designed to meet the engagement needs of students.    

Enrollment declines in traditional degree programs have been a long-term trend within community colleges and four-year institutions. With the onset of the pandemic and its effects on the labor market, these declines have become more prominent, as most adult students are increasingly considering enrollment in short-term, non-degree programs. According to a 2020 Strada survey, “68% of adults considering enrolling in an education program preferred non-degree, alternative programming.”    

General Survey Findings

  • 36.4% of respondents feel that the changes in the CE landscape since the pandemic are positive, 49.8% were neutral, and only 15.8% viewed the changes as negative. 
  • According to most respondents, the biggest challenges to upscaling alternative programs are “concerns about market demand, administrative burdens, cost to launch, and time to market.”
  • 76% of respondents reported there is support from institutional executives to “buy-in to scale and expand non-degree offerings.” 
  • 73% of respondents say the institutional website should play a leading role in student engagement, but only 10% of respondents say their website is an effective engagement engine.”

Institutions’ Adaptation to the Pandemic
With loss of revenue and increased utilization of online learning during the pandemic, many higher education institutions increased their reliance on CE provider services. For example, “changes like streamlining registration, adding online payment and porting courses into online delivery platforms,” have been a result of CE organizations receiving more funding from institutions.  One survey respondent noted that their institution has need for “communication software, project management and service-orientated training” services offered by CE organizations. 

On the other hand, there is some trepidation within universities and colleges to partner with CE. Only 45% of faculty and staff endorse their institution integrating non-degree programs into course offerings. Moreover, there is concern from institutions that CE programs may “siphon enrollments from degree programs.” Scott Cashman, Manager of Continuing Education at Harper College, explained: “There’s a widespread notion among credit faculty that CE programs steal their students. But there’s very little recognition of the fact that CE students and credit students are very different people with different goals.” However, increased CE offerings by institutions may open higher education access to more diverse populations of adult students. 

Biggest Barriers to Adding or Scaling Non-Credit Programs

  • 63.4% of all respondents and 71.4% of community college respondents reported concerns around market demand as one of the biggest barriers to adding or scaling non-credit programs.
  • 62% of all respondents noted “administrative burden” as one of the biggest challenges. 
  • 56.3% of university respondents classified “cost of launching new access points” as one of the biggest impediments. 

What Can Senior Leadership do to Expand CE?

  1. Reallocate more resources to program development of CE. 
  2. Employ CE leaders/managers in cabinet and senior leadership positions to “increase CE visibility and more deeply explore the growing opportunities between CE and traditional education.”
  3. Engage faculty to participate in the development of CE programs that increase higher education access to non-traditional students through remediation and certifications and other credentials that can be added into degree programs. 

Distance Learning & Student Engagement Challenges
One of the main challenges related to expanding distance learning programs offered by higher education institutions is adopting new technology into curriculum that best fits into a “personalized learning” online course model for students. Survey respondents reported concerns about “issues with students asking for help and faculty understanding student needs in remote classes.” A more personalized learning approach can help resolve such engagement issues.  

Modernizing Student Outreach
Although 73% of respondents answered that their institution’s website “should play a leading role in student engagement,” only 10% said “their [institution’s] site is very effective in driving student engagement, enrollment and retention.” Furthermore, “only about one-quarter (27.9%) of Continuing Education leaders say they have the technological firepower to serve non-degree students.” In order to cover these gaps in technology, higher education staff across the industry have had to put in increased effort. According to Scott Cashman, “Staff effort is significant if we have to manually meet the needs of a lot of students. We should be able to provide students self-serve functionalities that minimize their need for direct staff intervention.” Through self-serve models of outreach, students can efficiently learn about and enroll in program offerings, eliminating unnecessary steps to completing administrative tasks. 

Steps for Institutions to Streamline Self-Serve Model

  1. Offer students access to a synchronized, online “shopping cart-registration and program management experience.” 
  2. “Consider a CE-specific student information system (SIS)” that provides analytic data regarding program and campaign outcomes. 
  3. Enable SIS or any content management system to personalize learning content and program pathways for individual students. 
  4. Add/expand “stackable credentials, micro credentials and customized corporate training engagements”
  5. “Ensure new programs are marketed appropriately through central marketing office or CE-specific marketer.”

Opportunities for Growth

  • According to the Pew Research Center, “87% of workers said they thought it was essential or important to take part in training and develop new skills throughout their careers.”
  • “CE providers are in the process of either adding or growing their stackable credentials offerings, microcredentials and customized corporate training engagement, though 78% said they were not offering badges yet.”
  • “About two-thirds offer non-degree programs that can be used as pathways into degree programs with more than 80% expecting to offer these pathways in the future.”

Although CE programs are “under-resourced and under-appreciated,” the pandemic has spurred institutions to confront their engagement gap with students and begin to develop more CE offerings. Further, institutions must make long-term investments in CE to eventually provide more students with learning opportunities that can catalyze higher earning potential in a post-pandemic economy.

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