Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Continuing Education’s Super Bowl?
For years, the role of continuing education divisions on college and university campuses has been that of an outsider.
These divisions have historically operated on the periphery, always associated with the institutional brand but rarely leveraged to their fullest capacity. Instead, the tendency has been to think of CE units as cash-cows that help the institution fulfill its access mission while experimenting with potentially-useful innovations that could be rolled out across the rest of the institution.
Unfortunately, this reductionist mentality has led to some fundamental misunderstandings about the role, capacity and importance of these units in supporting the growth of the institution.
In an interview with The EvoLLLution recorded in 2016, Jim Broomall—then the Associate Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Delaware—outlined a few of the key challenges standing in the way of CE playing a larger role in institutional growth.
“Higher education as a field is hierarchical. There is a hierarchy that organizes disciplines, campus functions—everything across the institution exists as part of this hierarchy. Since continuing education’s mission has always been to deal with the alternative to the normal—the non-traditional student, the non-traditional program—there’s a sense that we’re peripheral to the main mission. As a result, we have this value, but that value isn’t perceived to be integral to the function of the main campus university.
Some time ago, a colleague introduced me like this: “This is Jim, he runs his own little university up on north campus.” That’s common, the sense that continuing education runs its own university and while it’s really not the main business of the institution, it’s tolerable as long as it generates revenue. That historical status ambiguity can create significant roadblocks to CE’s capacity to contribute to main campus development.”
“Typically, continuing education has not been a pathway to senior leadership positions, particularly at research universities. People who are in the senior decision-making roles don’t really come from our background, so they tend to have preconceived notions about what we do, which can unfortunately lead to some marginalization. Having said that, we can also be our own worst enemies in this regard. Over years, we’ve built these operations that are fairly autonomous and have been happy to be left alone by senior leadership, rather than trying to show how we add value to the broader institution.”
CE’s Moment in the Sun
But we’re in a new era now—one that’s been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result of the strict social distancing measures put into place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, colleges and universities were forced to adapt rapidly and shift all of their operations online.
“We had to provide training to all part-time instructors working in the community. We’ve been doing training sessions all week to help folks teach in this new format,” said Maureen MacDonald, Dean of the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, in an interview with The EvoLLLution.
It was much the same at Georgia Tech, according to Dean of Professional Education Nelson Baker.
“What we've done is help coordinate the movement of Georgia Tech classes to remote instruction,” he said in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “We've worked with colleges and IT groups across the entire university—meaning our campus is remote across the globe—to figure out the move online.”
With CE front-and-center in the transition to remote learning, these divisions finally got their shot to create meaningful change across the entire organization—and to show their main campuses what they can bring to the table.
“On the bi-weekly call with both the president and provost, the deans and cabinet were asked how everything was going,” said Baker. “It was humbling to hear everybody acknowledge my team's efforts to make this happen in two weeks. The president said, had he been asked a month ago if we could move the entire campus online in five years, his answer would’ve been no. To have it happen in two weeks is nothing short of astonishing.”
But CE leaders can’t let this moment in the sun pass as a short-term opportunity to showcase their competencies. Student-centricity, flexibility and market-responsiveness need to become hallmarks of higher education institutions as a whole, and these are the core competencies of CE divisions.
Transitioning to the Institutional Hub
Within this period of change, it’s essential that CE divisions begin their migration into the hub of their respective institutions.
This is not a transformation coming out of the blue, but one that’s been slowly progressing for years.
“We have moved from the periphery of the university to become its centerpiece. Our work engaging students for employment and advancement has become central to institution-wide strategic plans,” wrote Ray Schroeder, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois-Springfield, in his article on The EvoLLLution.
At forward-looking universities like Temple and Minnesota, and colleges like Tri-C, this shift is already underway. All programming geared toward non-traditional students is centrally-managed, while the development and delivery of those offerings live with the relevant faculties. This structure ensures everyone is able to focus on the work they’re best-suited to do.
Nicole Westrick, Associate Vice Provost at Temple University, drove their administrative consolidation process for non-credit programming. In an interview with The EvoLLLution, she reflected back on the benefits of the transformation.
“We had a unit that had extensive requirements from our internal audit department around cash handling, because of the system they were using and the way security, roles and responsibilities were divided. As a result, they had one staff person whose time and energy was largely focused on making sure that they were in compliance with their cash handling processes.
We told that unit that the central system we were looking at handled that administrative function, so the person who was otherwise spending their time focused on the cash handling processes could instead spend their time focusing on the things that really matter at the program level, which is program development, marketing and curriculum management.”
Mapping Out Continuing (and Higher) Education’s Future
Ultimately, CE leaders cannot let this moment pass them by. This is a chance for divisions that have historically served adults to step into the forefront and make meaningful change.
The outcome of this will be beneficial on a few levels.
For institutions: it will support flexibility and adaptability to a changing market for the coming
For learners: it will lead to the creation of a more accessible postsecondary environment where institutions adopt a more student-centric approach to everything from learner experience to program and service design.
For society: it will help shrink existing skills gaps, create more opportunities to develop an educated citizenry, and ultimately contribute to broader socioeconomic development.
So, take the bull by the horns! Or, as Syracuse University’s Dean of University College Michael Frasciello put it in his interview with The EvoLLLution:
“As CE leaders, this is our Super Bowl. We need to step up and step in with confidence to position our teams at the forefront of these efforts.”
The EvoLLLution is publishing articles and interviews focused around higher education’s adaptation to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, we’re developing whitepapers to help highlight some of the central trends we’re seeing rise across the board.
Download our whitepaper focused on CE’s evolving role in a changing postsecondary environment.
Last updated: December 1, 2020