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Student Engagement | 8 minute read

One Size Does Not “Fit All” in Continuing Education

Non-traditional education leaders deserve a medal. At any given time, division leaders are brainstorming, rubbing their temples, whittling away at new ideas as they try to marry two disparate principles:

  1. Create access to education for underserved segments of the student demographic, and
  2. Make enough money to reduce the institution’s reliance on tuition, fees and grants. 

Yet despite scores of new learners seeking professional training, a burgeoning middle-skill labor market and other CE demographics ready to (en)roll, these stalwarts of ingenuity are being challenged by bootcamps and employer-developed certificate courses offering certifications and other sub-degree credentials.

If non-traditional divisions are to maintain that claim to innovation – serving their students and supporting the larger institution – they’ll need to do more to address inefficiencies that can hinder their ability to attract, engage and retain them. 

The best way to do that is to consider the tools and technologies that students and division staff interact with every day.

Why Your System Matters

The modern student is as much a consumer as they are a learner, and higher education leaders are earning two-star reviews for how they’re approaching their customers’ digital engagement.

Student Stat (1) (1)

In a recent survey by DJS Research, nearly half of U.S. postsecondary students said they would’ve had a better experience if they could interact digitally with their institution. A third of American students said poor administrative systems hurt their view of the school. Globally, a third of students surveyed were frustrated with how complex those processes and paperwork are. More than 40% expected an easier administrative experience for the fees they paid, and almost all respondents said they wanted a single, universally accessible app to manage that experience.

Education is becoming a lifelong pursuit, and these unhappy customers are less likely to re-enroll or even stay with an institution that doesn’t honor its end of the bargain, placing the burden of outdated, overwhelming admin on the student’s shoulders.

Non-traditional divisions need responsive and consolidated systems that ease operations for administrators while leaving students to focus on learning.

Non-traditional divisions need responsive and consolidated systems that ease operations for administrators while leaving students to focus on learning.

Carolyn Young, Director of Continuing Education Studies at Western University, told the EvoLLLution that falling short of normal eCommerce expectations is a quick way to lose students. “Our customers expect what we call the ‘Amazon experience,’” said Young. “You go in, you find what you want, you buy it and you’re in and out in five minutes. If you’re using processes that are dated, you’re going to lose your customers.”

Carolyn Young (1)

One Size Does Not Fit All

Continuing education leaders know full well that most main campus systems don’t fulfill their non-traditional needs, resulting in countless calls to IT and shadow systems to paper over the damage done trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole.

 “Far too many organizations then began to focus resources and effort on linking legacy systems through complex integrations instead of unlocking true business value for their organizations,” wrote Rob Lowden, Executive Associate Dean and Chief Information Officer at Indiana University.

Lowden told the EvoLLLution that this cobweb of systems leaves divisions scrambling to maintain instead of improving their operation.

“Managing, maintaining and supporting these integrations creates an operational mess that consumes limited technical resources to keep the business ‘running’.”

Without a CE-tailored system, tasks that would otherwise take one person mere moments become journeys, requiring the input of main campus staff who have enough on their plate as it is. When summer approaches and CE needs documentation from incoming students, administrators shouldn’t be waiting on the registrar’s office to finish processing grades for outgoing graduates.

Imagine having to switch between four hammers to drive in one nail. It’s absurd, but it’s a reality for staff in non-traditional divisions to spend cumulative hours (perhaps more) switching between multiple tools to complete a single task; constantly re-entering information and repeating work processes to achieve what a more consolidated tool could complete in an instant.  

“Consolidating existing shadow or duplicative systems is another vital strategy in creating a strong and sound IT infrastructure,” wrote Lowden. “Multiple systems that similarly do the same thing can cause great user confusion and delay work productivity.”

Inefficiencies like this leave staff at with little of the time or energy required to do their jobs effectively, let alone take the wheel on innovation and growth. 

And all the paper in the world doesn’t hide the holes from students, whose experiences with Amazon and other commerce titans have taught them to expect a seamless digital encounter with the recipient of their investment. Once again, relying on main campus systems backfires: Most traditional enrollment processes are not designed with the non-traditional student in mind, and import the worst aspects of the on-campus admin experience for all students to bemoan. 

“Unfortunately, most online enrollment registration systems in higher ed grew up around the physical structure of the college or university, and were built with an administrative focus in mind rather than the needs of the student,” said Mark Mrozinski, Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development and Executive Dean at Harper College.

In an interview, Mrozinski told the EvoLLLution: “The student navigated the online system just as they would if they walked on campus and you sent them from one office to another to another. There was no continuity of service.”

In a user-first era, a cumbersome digital experience can be what sends a prospective student back to the search field.

In a user-first era, a cumbersome digital experience can be what sends a prospective student back to the search field.

A Specialized System

Non-traditional education needs to be flexible and market-responsive, all while providing main campus admin with the data and resources it needs. CE-specific Student Lifecycle Management (SLM) platforms give division leaders everything they need to efficiently manage all aspects of the learner lifecycle, from marketing to enrollment, from curriculum to finance.

Many potential students won’t hesitate to look elsewhere if they catch even a whiff of difficulty engaging with an institution, and others can be “lost” with as little as three negative experiences with administration. Robust lifecycle management software circumvents those obstacles by embracing the customer-first model used by companies like Amazon: completely self-service based, with a visible shopping cart that saves all input information, clear and up to date product descriptions, a secure payment system and an easy means of tracking the status of their purchase.

When applied to non-traditional education, features like student portals allow learners to serve themselves with no input from administrators. Enrolling in, dropping and changing courses, requesting transcripts, drafting and saving applications, reviewing financial information and more become the stress-free tasks they should be.

A personalized administration system also allows CE divisions to adopt a high-tech/high-touch approach to management, where staff time is devoted to high-value work instead of ringing IT for the umpteenth time to deal with their slouching back-end.

Assistant VP of Outreach and Dean of Continuing Education at University of Utah, Sandi Pershing told the EvoLLLution that technological barriers hurt a division’s ability to produce the innovation that main campus expects.  

Pershing cited restrictive main campus systems as an example: “You might try to run a class within continuing education that’s outside normal semester timelines so it doesn’t work with the traditional campus database. In situations like this, you have to build outside systems to work around the traditional system, which can be cumbersome.”

Software designed for non-traditional divisions also accounts for the flexibility that characterizes continuing education and isn’t tethered to the rigid semester system.

Software designed for non-traditional divisions also accounts for the flexibility that characterizes continuing education and isn’t tethered to the rigid semester system. This lets program leaders launch and automatically approve courses on a whim, which means divisions are ready to pounce on new market opportunities with relevant curriculum.

It’s sensible for CE divisions to think consistency between administrative systems is a way to ensure ease of interaction between themselves and the larger institution. But relying on main campus systems leaves divisions leaning uncomfortably on main campus staff, who often don’t have the time to respond when items are needed. Data frequently needs to be reformatted and cleaned, which adds to the headache. A strong Student Lifecycle Management (SLM) system, meanwhile, easily integrates with existing main campus systems while serving the out-of-the-box needs of continuing education administrators.

Make Your System A Priority

Robust SLM systems integrate with main campus systems, engage students with the Amazon-like experience they expect, optimizes staff efficiency, and provides business intelligence that data-driven decision making for non-traditional divisions and the institutions they’re tied to. 

Continuing education leaders are to be commended for applying the “work smart” ethos to their program offerings, curriculum and division management. This makes it even more curious how few divisions have made the systems that facilitate those operations a priority; opting instead for systems that hinder workflow, restrict innovation and make life harder for students.

If these divisions expect to grow, students and the workforce at large expect them to swim with the tide – not against it.

Setting Up Your Non-Traditional Division for Success