A New Age in College Education

For every student enrolled in college today, there are 15 working Americans. So where are universities looking to boost enrollment?

If you want to know the scope of the challenges facing higher education in the United States, consider these two items: Undergraduate enrollment peaked at more than 10 million in 2009, but began declining and has yet to fully recover. In January, 156.7 million Americans had jobs, nearly 16 times the collegiate cohort. So if you’re a development officer, a campus recruiter or a top executive of a college in this country, those numbers may give you ample reason to think that you need to be fishing in a bigger pond. Which is, in fact, happening—but those anglers are using a different bait. Increasingly, the lure is bite-sized instruction that yields certificates of achievement or credentials for attainment of certain skills. Universities are aggregating those course credits into new types of degrees aimed more directly at the needs of the business community looking to hire new talent with the right skill sets.
In Overland Park, the Edwards Campus is the headquarters of Professional & Continuing Education for the University of Kansas. It offers a range of programs for adult learners in one day, online, short course, boot camp and on-site formats, said KU spokeswoman Jill Hummels. Topics include leadership, soft skills, coding, data analytics, cybersecurity, Lean Six Sigma and more, she said, noting that “thousands of local professionals participate in professional and continuing education from KU each year.”

Another example: “The University of Central Missouri has engaged a marketing firm to assist with a concerted effort to target adult learners in the Kansas City area,” says Laurel Hogue, vice provost for extended studies. In addition, she says, UCM is part of a network of 17 schools that work with KC Degrees, which provides adults at least 25 years old in this region with personalized, consistent and  reliable college success services. Among those, Hogue said, are access to a robust community-based resources network and direct contacts within a regional postsecondary network and with regional employers.

Shane Smeed, vice president and chief operating officer at Park University, said the Parkville college has established a program called Access to Education to make it easier for people to advance their skills. “By partnering with government entities, businesses and community colleges, we give people opportunities to continue their education,” Smeed says, and supports that effort with tuition discounts, flexible course schedules and degrees that dovetail with an individual’s career goals.

Park also has aligned with the KC Scholars postsecondary network and, like UCM, with KC Degrees. “Both organizations support adult-learner degree completion  through tuition scholarships,” Smeed said.
Part of the challenge for universities is the complexity of implementing new programs, securing approval and start-up funding (especially on the public side), then enrolling and graduating students. It’s a
long run-up on the front end, and the actual instruction on the back end means six years can elapse between the time a program is envisioned and a new graduate is minted. 

“The glacier speed that higher education moves at definitely doesn’t work in our favor,” says Kevin Gwinner, deanof the school of business at Kansas State University. “It is something to overcome,
but there is now some recognition of that here to change and speed up the approval process and programs.” 
That creates a delicate balancing act, Gwinner says: Move too quickly, and you risk applying resources improperly, forcing later course corrections to redeploy faculty and staff, or worse, lay them off. “And to launch a new adult learner market, whether for-credit graduates or credit, we either need to hire new people or stretch the current human resources we have. But if we don’t do it, in five years, we’ll really be behind the 8-ball.”
How are businesses in the region reacting to those changes? “The response from businesses has been strong,” says UCM’s Hogue. The university, she says, continues to offer more opportunities for non-semester-based training that leads to industry-recognized credentials or continuing education units
in a variety of industry sectors.

“Company tuition assistance is a helpful option for providing more training to working professionals,” she said, and UCM processes approximately 500 tuition assistance vouchers from more than 30
companies annually. “Additionally, we see community organizations investing by awarding scholarships for stackable certificate programs for adults who upon completion will enter a new field, or see a wage increase and or a job title change.” 

Park’s Access to Education offers partner businesses targeted training sessions tailored to assist in developing team members, Smeed said. “These classroom-quality  training sessions can be facilitated at
the business site by Park University professionals. We have also developed tailored course series to stimulate successful work force and career growth.”

Businesses that tap into those resources to broaden the skills of their work force  will be well-positioned for success, campus executives say. “The win-win is educating individuals in ways that enhance their professional success and better serve their employers, which in turn benefits the entire community,”
says David Cook, vice chancellor for the Edwards Campus of the University of Kansas. “By listening to what current and future students want, listening to what local employers need and keeping an eye on
data and research, we can build or advance programs to achieve the double win.”