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Resourced for Success: Enrollment and Retention Advice from College Executives

It’s no secret the ecosystems of Continuing Education and Workforce Development are experiencing substantial change.  

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse recently revealed some worrying insights on student tendencies. More than 39 million Americans who have left college without earning a credential, with 26% of total learners—and 41% of community college students—leaving after their first year. Additionally, two thirds of adults who are considering higher education enrollment say they would prefer non-degree or alternative credentials.  

Undeniably, the pandemic has enflamed this challenge, with enrollment numbers dropping by 1.4 million students since 2019.  

So, what does this mean for higher ed leaders trying to navigate this landscape? It’s time to hit the drawing board and modify your business strategies. 

Modern Campus recently partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to host “Resourcing the Modern College to Serve Modern Learners”— a webinar in which two community college presidents discussed how they’ve pivoted their institutional strategies and objectives to drive student enrollment, retention and success. 

Meet the panelists: 

  • Thomas Stith, President of North Carolina Community College System 
  • Dr. Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor of San Jacinto Community College 

Here are the top lessons gleaned from that discussion.

4 Lessons for Continuing Education Leaders


1. Clearly demonstrate the value of higher ed.


CE leaders must be prepared to show students what they stand to gain after program completion.  
Dr. Hellyer said that more students are asking what’s going to happen after graduation: “What kind of earnings are they going to get after they earn a credential?”  

To that end, student success stories—along with income predictions and job prospecting data—should be readily available data for all prospective and current students. Prior to the pandemic, San Jacinto Community College worked closely with local high schools to ensure that school counsellors met with parents and students about their higher ed choices. This simple strategy helped the college to respond to any concerns from anxious or apprehensive students. 

2. Regularly assess program curriculum with job outcomes. 

It’s important for students and prospects to know you have their best interests at heart. Students are far more likely to enroll in and complete their program if they are confident their curriculum is frequently updated and aligned with current labor market demand.  

Dr. Hellyer stressed the value of forming advisory councils and regularly discussing the state of various job industries—a practice that has become standard at her college. She said that higher ed leaders will sometimes have to make the difficult decision to eliminate programs that no longer serve their students. 

“We’ve done that with other programs and other courses that don’t align to labor market data to where our students are going to be able to earn family living wages,” she said. “It takes a lot of leadership and a lot of commitment from an institution, knowing that if it’s not working, we’re going to either fix it or get rid of it.” 

This practice helps to better secure student success and contributes to a healthier labor market. 

Thomas Stith agrees that community colleges are no stranger to being called upon during a critical economic downturn; they have the power to reshape higher education and help jumpstart the economy.  

“Faculty and administrators have to be in tune to labor market outcomes,” he said. “We want that instruction to lead to a viable career, to lead to a job that is going to improve that individual and that family’s situation.”  

Stith added that incentivizing innovation in colleges needs to be a priority for every layer of leadership. 

“College systems and Boards of Trustees will have to continue to reward those colleges and programs,” he said. 

3. Listen to your students and adapt accordingly. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that only the innovative survive. Every successful organization has had to embrace change to stay afloat, and continuing education and workforce development units are no exception.  

It’s imperative for higher ed institutions to be nimble and efficient to address the challenges modern learners face. Student populations are diverse, representing multiple generations, income brackets and experiences. Our approach to engagement needs to be diverse as well.  

“Throughout the pandemic, we had to show that flexibility,” Stith said. “We had to show that innovation. We had to utilize various mediums of technology to ensure that we were meeting the needs of our students and providing that environment for student success.”  

The goal is to meet students where they are to better address their unique needs.  

Dr. Hellyer agreed. Especially during the pandemic, she advises higher ed executives to “listen to the different age groups and demographics of your students to figure out what kind of communication works with them.”  

When the interests of businesses and students align, higher ed institutions can be assured they are set for students to have fruitful outcomes.  

4. Prioritize resourcing for modern learners. 

Although publicly funded institutions may sometimes be resource-challenged, Stith emphasizes the importance of prioritizing technology that impacts the student experience.  

Dr. Hellyer added that while there are federal and state funds, many of them have robust criteria that limit an institution’s ability to access those dollars. She hopes these government bodies will take a deeper look at how funding requirements create barriers to education innovation. But in the meantime, she also encourages higher ed leaders to play their part in budgeting for tech solutions for their continuing education and workforce development teams.  

With the pandemic, came the onslaught of rising costs—including the costs of cybersecurity and protecting tech systems, which has discouraged some higher ed executives from investing in new technology. However, if CE and WD units want to stay competitive, investing in essential innovative technology today will cost them far less in the future. 


Resourcing the Modern College to Serve Modern Learners

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Last updated: June 15, 2022


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