Emerson College’s Approach to Integrating Adult Education on Campus

Adult and continuing education departments are often outliers on campus.

They often have separate governance, with separate resources. But in the most recent episode of Enrollment Growth University Lesley Nichols, Executive Director of Professional Studies at Emerson College, discussed the integration and shared resource benefits of bringing adult and continuing education departments off their own island and into the fold.

Emerson has an enrollment of nearly 5,000 students. The majority of those are undergraduates, but one of their big initiatives is trying to grow their graduate population. Lesley’s role in professional studies at Emerson is really to help integrate “professional” or continuing education for working professionals and adult learners into the Emerson culture and growth plan. 

This post is based on what she shared in her interview.

The Benefits of Integrating Continuing Ed Departments Into the Rest of the College

Lesley’s worked in continuing ed probably over half of her career in higher ed, so she knows that continuing ed tends to be the “stepchild” of the main campus.

But she found the opportunity to diversify her audience at Emerson exciting. So much of their population now is no longer the traditional residential 18-year-old to 22-year-old student. That still exists, but they’re seeing more and more people, even of that age range, who have full-time jobs.

These people are juggling work and school, and they really need some more flexibility in how they attend college. So Lesley sees this as a great way to bring adults of all ages into the fold, bringing with them a variety of work experiences, opinions, and cultures. It just brings so much diversity to the classroom and also opens up brand new audiences for the college to serve.

The Importance of Getting Integration Buy-In From Senior Campus Leaders

Emerson’s president and other senior leaders were critical in bringing adult education into the fold. We asked Lesley why.

She reiterated that Emerson’s traditional population has been comprised primarily of undergraduate students. They do have the graduate programs, but over the years, they’ve seen some decline in graduate enrollment

Adults are looking for something much more flexible that will fit their lifestyle. Through market research, the college found out the interesting fact that even for their graduate programs, the audience that they were attracting was younger than the industry standard.

Most colleges and universities will see a graduate population comprised primarily of individuals who may have been out of school for a few years. They earned their Bachelor’s, they have some work experience, and then they come back for their Master’s.

But at Emerson, they were finding that the bulk of their graduate population was straight out of their undergraduate degrees, so there was definitely an opportunity that they were missing to reach a lot of adults who are above the age of 30. This is especially a lost opportunity in a market like Boston, which is incredibly crowded. You can barely count the number of colleges and universities in the area.

So Emerson’s senior leaders saw a market opportunity. They also wanted to grow online programs.

In most universities, the professional or continuing education unit tends to be an innovator in bringing in technologies and new ways of delivering programming. That may have been the crux for why the emphasis on continuing ed was made.

How to Actually Implement an Adult Education Integration on Campus

Let’s say you’re able to get executive support at your college or institution. How do you implement the integration when so much current infrastructure today is set up and organized around the traditional student?

One of the challenges, especially in this day and age, is that we’re in a 24/7 society. So any student, any customer expects 24/7 service. And yet, colleges across the nation, even across the world, are really set up on a different model, more of a Monday through Friday, eight-to-five type of business model.

Some of the first stages in trying to make implementation a reality at Emerson were on the technology side. They tried to provide some solutions that enable students to have a more of a self-service experience so that they have certain things they need to accomplish off-hours when a staff member may not be present to assist them.

That’s everything from being able to register and pay for their classes, to putting in a request for a transcript, to IT help service after hours.

The other area is support: everything from student advising to student accounts and the registrar. How can we better integrate those services for adult learners, but also make those in a way that’s convenient for someone who may have a day job? They can’t necessarily get advised during the day, but could we provide some services for them on the weekends or after hours?

Early Indicators of Emerson’s Continuing Education Integration Success

The integration is still a work in progress, but one of Emerson’s most exciting initiatives is the launch of their first graduate certificate, which will be an entrepreneurship, and that launch is this coming January.

Already they have over 200 inquiries, so there’s definitely some interest out there. It’s also primarily an online program, so that’s something that fits in with their mission of growing online and providing more flexible options.

They really see graduate certificates as a growth area for the college, with professional studies serving as the intermediary. They’re working with the academic departments to develop, launch, and implement these programs, and they have really strong partnerships with their enrollment management team and admissions, with the marketing team, and with advising, to make this a seamless experience.

The other exciting thing is their pre-college program, which is a high school program of academic enrichment in the summer. It ties in directly with Emerson’s undergraduate degrees, and that is serving as a really successful pipeline to bring new students into Emerson as undergraduates. They’ve seen a lot of success over the past year in integrating their application system for pre-college with the undergraduate and graduate admission system.

All of the students then are using the same resources, the same process, the same systems, to be able to enroll, and Emerson is able to then use this CRM to create a full lifecycle for each student, all the way from high school through possibly a graduate degree if they stay with Emerson long enough.

The possibilities are exciting.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Lesley Nichols from Emerson College. 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.