In my first post on continuing education (CE), I argue that institutions that rely in part or in whole on non-credit programming would begin to lose its share of the student population to new educational providers outside of higher education. Emerging alternatives like Udemy, General Assembly, and Codecademy are marketing increasingly sophisticated learning experiences at prices far below university rates.
Traditional universities are finding ways to successfully expand the reach and impact of the CE schools. Of course, not all tactics work for all universities, at all times. Strategies and tactics are always context-specific.
The six tactics below are particularly relevant to comprehensive and selective institutions.
1. Develop hybrid programs in key disciplines to serve urban professionals.
Comprehensive universities in major urban areas are well positioned to offer hybrid programs to urban and suburban professionals. If designed well, hybrid programs combine the best of web-based learning with socially engaging face-to-face learning in convenient locations, which older, elite institutions typically occupy. For adult learners, this model is easier to fit into their daily lives and blends familiar educational formats with the best use of technology.
For the institution, hybrid programs make best use of prime real estate and quality instructors. Hybrid programs also expand the school’s capacity for online learning while serving students, who have historically sought out both web-based and lifelong learning.
2. Take the lead for the university on competency-based programs.
Adult learners tend to be more pragmatic about their reasons for enrolling. The social dimensions of the university matter less to this group. They want to have a good experience, certainly, but learning is foremost. Their time is precious. For this reason, CE schools are well suited to offer competency-based programs that allow learners to progress at their own pace. To be sure, shifting to a competency-based education model is not easy to do in traditional institutions. But CE schools typically have the necessary independence to try new approaches.
CE schools were created, after all, as separate units within the university precisely because the university “proper” could not easily incorporate different business models into the fold. And the obstacles specific to implementing competency-based programs – student loan and registration systems – are less challenging for many CE programs. But most importantly, the competency-based model brings into focus two key drivers of success in the adult education market: recognition of prior learning and convenience.
3. Expand the size of the total market by providing non-traditional learners low-risk opportunities to engage with the institution.
The numbers of learners considering “taking a night class” far outnumber those who actually enroll in CE. The CE school can capture a greater share of the market by providing learners with educational opportunities that require less investment and risk (time and money). For example, rather than require enrolling in a four-month course, the CE school can develop multiple entry points for learners in key disciplines. This allows the hesitant learner to dip her toe in the discipline before committing more time and money. The key to this strategy is to ensure that these options are structured and promoted in such a way that each of the student’s engagement with the school leads easily to subsequent engagements.
4. Invest in instructor recruitment and support to maximize one of the school’s key advantages.
Instructors represent a major portion of operating costs for CE schools. They are also a key driver of student satisfaction and repeat customers. The CE school, with its affiliation with a selective institution, is well positioned to secure high-quality instructors, who can drive growth. Professionals interested in part-time teaching work typically prefer to be affiliated with prestigious institutions, as it serves their broader social and professional objectives. The CE school can establish a competitive advantage in their markets by taking steps to ensure that their recruitment, support and supervision of instructors is best in class.
5. Partner with nationally-recognized organizations to expand the scope and appeal of new CE offerings.
Prestigious universities are in a unique position to develop effective partnerships with other respected organizations and institutions. By offering events, courses and programs with carefully selected partners, CE schools can extend their reach into new subject areas and attract new learners. Ideal partners are those with a nationally-recognized brand, expertise in specific domains, and a desire to establish a presence in major urban markets like New York, Chicago and Toronto. Many well-known cultural, professional and educational institutions are exploring new revenue streams; representative partnerships include the Smithsonian Institute (science), MOMA (art), IDEO (design) and The New York Times (journalism).
6. Implement tools that allow students, faculty and the leadership to measure learning.
Adult learners are driven by results. The quality and pace of learning is key to their satisfaction and, thus, to the success of the CE school. One way to increase the value to these students is to provide meaningful and immediate feedback on their learning progress through learning analytics. Data that explains in clear terms what the student knows (knowledge) and can do (skills) will help busy adult students become more effective and efficient learners, and guide them along a more direct path to achieving their educational goals.