Evolving to Thrive: How Continuing Education & Traditional Higher Ed Can Grow Together

There’s a word that most people are sick of hearing and yet, it describes the state of ever-shifting realities so perfectly that we continue using it.

That word is: unprecedented. 

Karen Pederson, Dean for Global Campus at Kansas State University, uses the word near the start of 26th episode of Illumination by Modern Campus.

“I said it a hundred times,” she admits. “I think that it really shapes where units have found ourselves in this kind of a time.”

Setting New Precedents 

The landscape of online learning, continuing education and professional development is ever-evolving, Pederson says. Program providers are constantly adapting to the changing needs of employers—who themselves are acclimating to shifting consumer needs. 

Fortunately, she believes that the scrappy spirit of the professionals running continuing education units makes the field uniquely fit to take on this challenge.

“One thing I really appreciate and value about each of the institutions where I have been is that we have this kind of entrepreneurial perspective,” she says. “We make it happen, get it done, sort of live on the cutting edge.”

Bursting Traditional Bubbles

And yet, continuing ed cannot (and should not) live in a bubble, fencing itself off from the concerns and opportunities of the broader high education landscape. Pederson believes that collaboration is key for the survival of all concerned parties, continuing ed units and traditional programming alike.

“That ability to collaborate with colleagues across an institution I think brings strength,” she says. “And I think it brings the opportunity for everyone to grow in different and unique ways.”

One thing that Pederson and her colleagues from all across KSU have brought their heads together to discuss are the changing demographics of prospective students. Fewer high school seniors in Kansas—and nationwide—are choosing to enroll in traditional degree programs immediately upon graduation, if at all. This means that KSU, like all institutions, will have to attract more nontraditional students to keep its enrollment numbers steady. 

“The audiences that we need to serve and how we serve them … is where I learn from my colleagues and I think they learn from the work that we've done in Global Campus as well,” she says.

And yes, traditional programs can also benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit of CE units that Pederson values so greatly.

“If we can bring parts and pieces of that to a broader institutional perspective—fantastic!,” she says.

Combating the Competition

Collaboration, Pederson believes, is also key in standing out among the competition, particularly from what she calls “non-higher education providers”—corporations that have only recently begun to move into the education space, offering non-degree workforce development credentials.

“There's others out there nibbling at the edges,” she warns. “They’re certainly taking bites out of the landscape that we have traditionally seen as higher ed.”

To take some of those bites back, Pederson thinks KSU will need to continue highlighting its traditional resources as strengths, not burdens.

“Kansas State University brings some incredible thinking and an incredible approach to education and the educational landscape, strengths that other non-higher ed providers don't have,” she says.

To amplify those strengths, she proposes “getting more agile” and thinking differently about the work of colleges and universities as a whole. 

But, Pederson says, this call to action needs to expand beyond institutional leadership; academic and student life professionals—and especially newer professionals who often get the most face-to-face time with students of out anyone—need to buy into innovation too.

“The voices of those individuals on the front lawn who are engaging with prospective students and working on that persistence with current students, navigating the challenges with learners as they make their way through—that's a place where we need to focus,” she says. 

She also advocates for rethinking tradition processes, procedures and norms that may not fit today’s students as well as they once did.

“There is this kind of wild, wild west feeling in terms of what we call things and the nomenclature we use,” she says. “I think it leads to some degree of confusion on the part of prospective learners.”

Some education leaders may view those outdated systems as burdens, bogging traditional institutions down in contrast to non-traditional competitors. But Pederson views it differently. 

“I think that's a space where we have an opportunity,” she says.

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Last updated: January 21, 2022


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