The State of Continuing Education, 2021

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Amrit Ahluwalia, Editor in Chief of The EvoLLLution (an online publication founded by Modern Campus), joined the podcast to talk about the results from their State of CE survey addressing the gap between what modern learners want and what higher education actually offers.

When asked by researchers from the Strada Network, 68% of adults considering going back to school say they would prefer a non-degree alternative program. But universities often hold little data around continuing education and rarely know what problems they face.

That’s changing.

Amrit Ahluwalia, Editor in Chief of The EvoLLLution, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the results from their recent survey addressing the gap between what the modern adult learner is looking for and what higher education is actually offering.

Exposing the modern learner engagement gap

The Evolllution published its first survey last February. This year’s survey, based on the publication’s subscription base, aims to get to the bottom of what’s happening in the non-degree or non-traditional higher ed space. 

What they found comes down to this:

More and more higher ed institutions are prioritizing non-degree or continuing education but very few institutions are resourcing those divisions to make substantive change.

“We have higher ed leaders who recognize the importance of the digital experience to engaging the learners that they’re serving,” Amrit explained, “but don’t believe in their own infrastructure to deliver the experience their students expect.”

The growing trend toward non-degree alternatives

The interest in non-degree and continuing education isn’t  happening in a vacuum. The market actually wants it. 

According to the Evolllution survey, when asked for their primary reason for enrolling in a degree program, nearly 58% of students say, “To achieve career outcomes or professional outcomes.”

This finding is not unique. UCLA recently surveyed their incoming freshmen class and something like 80% of students highlighted the value of their education to career outcomes. 

“A desire for career impact is nothing new for any higher education student,” Amrit said. “The problem is that they’re recognizing that the more traditional pathways to education that we’ve forged aren’t leading there.” 

A Burning Glass survey released toward the end of last year pointed out that nearly two in five bachelor’s degree holders are underemployed in their first job. When you consider that the majority of students enroll because they want career outcomes, that’s unacceptable. 

Add the expense of a traditional degree program to that dismal outcome number, and you see why students are shopping for something else.  

So why isn’t every institution jumping on this trend?

What are the obstacles to creating and supporting non-degree programs? Survey participants responded with ideas such as:

  • Does what we offer really supply the market’s demand?
  • We aren’t set up to do this.
  • It’s expensive.
  • It’s administratively burdensome.
  • By the time we go through an approval process, will this program still be relevant?

No surprises there. But then something else also emerged. 

“We asked folks if there’s anything else that they’d like to add, in terms of obstacles to scaling or expanding non- degree programs,” Amrit said. 

Doing a keyword analysis on the responses, he and his team lumped the results into four buckets: 

  1. Acceptance and support of non-degree programming from the main campus is lacking.
  2. The capacity for staff to actually do innovative work
  3. Lack of budget and financial support
  4. Insufficient technology to deliver programs

All things that kind of stem from senior leadership’s lack of practical support for continuing ed divisions to help keep their respective institutions competitive.

Surprises and digital gaps in the CE research

The data revealed more gaps and surprises.

The biggest gap

Every learner is an experienced, seasoned consumer. They shop on Amazon, watch Netflix, and give up taxis for Uber. Whether they’re 48 and looking to up-skill or 16 and trying to find their first school, every learner today is basically a digital native. 

So why is the university behind the banks or the cable companies when it comes to delivering a customer experience?

Our first and biggest gap lies between student’s expectation and university delivery. Students expect a website that provides straightforward, personalized experiences based on their browsing history. For their part, universities often still think students are lucky to get an offer from them. 

The biggest surprise

Two responses stood out about the power of the website.

# 1  — 73% of respondents say the institution’s website should play a leading role in deeply engaging students and facilitating their registration. The website itself should be personalized, high quality and provide a clear sense of what the consumer is looking for.

# 2  — 10% of respondents rate their website as very effective at driving student

engagement, enrollment, and retention.

73% of students expect it, and 10% of universities deliver it.

Next steps to shrinking the modern learner engagement gap

Senior leaders need to shift their thinking about the role of continuing education as a strategic imperative for the institution. The fact that cannibalization still concerns some folks when it comes to expanding online education programming is a major, major concern.

The last page of the survey outlines about 10 action items based on the findings unearthed in the research. Topics include stackable credentials, micro credentials, and other opportunities on the horizon. 

But you cannot achieve a positive outcome unless you properly support and resource continuing education.



This post is based on a podcast interview with Amrit Ahluwalia of EvoLLLution. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.