Jim Fong is chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), where he and his research team help university leaders understand the trends impacting higher education. They also support the development of new programs and credentials to meet the complex needs of the ever-changing learner and the new economy.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Jeff Cobb and return guest Jim Fong talk about why higher ed needs to evolve to meet the needs of employers and the new adult learner. They discuss the opportunity for unbundling the traditional degree with alternative and stackable credentials, the role of employers in shaping education and training, recent UPCEA research, and the collaboration between associations and academia to meet the needs of lifelong learners.
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[00:00] – Intro
Unbundling the Traditional Degree to Offer Alternative Credentials
[01:44] – When Jim Fong was on the show in March 2020, he and co-host Celisa Steele discussed the growing need for higher ed institutions to unbundle the traditional degree to offer alternative credentials. What sort of progress has been made since then?
Pre-pandemic, higher education lost a million students over a decade with a slow decline in enrollments. During the pandemic, higher ed lost another million students. A few hundred thousand have since returned. In 2025, 2030, we’re facing a demographic cliff—we’ll have fewer 18-year-olds.
The arrows are pointing in the wrong direction for higher education. Colleges and universities need to define their strategies, look at how they’re going to get a larger share of the market, and rethink and re-innovate.
There’s a higher high school completion rate now, so we shouldn’t be seeing a decline in enrollments until 2025. The fact that there is a decline now is a signal to higher education that the system might be broken. The Great Resignation is another signal to start re-innovating and to unbundle the 120-credit degree into smaller, bite-size pieces.
People have less money. They’re not willing to commit to $50,000 to $100,000 for a degree, if not more. They want to get smaller pieces of that. An institution may get that same amount of money. Maybe they’ll have higher costs, but they’ve got to make it more palatable, more digestible, and more acceptable. Otherwise, they’re going to face this cliff a lot faster than they expect. And, in fact, we’re seeing that the pandemic did a number of things to accelerate that cliff in a different way, but it also opened up a number of opportunities for institutions to be thinking about.Jim Fong
The Threat of Google Certificates (and Others) to Higher Ed
[04:30] – Some people see Google’s creation of certificates as the end of higher education. Is the situation that grim?
Google, IBM, Amazon, and others are opening up their own “universities” and redefining the competencies required to do a job. Ten to twenty years ago, corporations and employers wanted more training and wanted colleges to help prepare their workforce for the Internet era, but higher education snubbed their noses. As a result, corporations came in through the back door with things like MOOCs to provide more accessible education while also leveraging the brand of higher education.
So that’s a big signal here, but it doesn’t say it’s the end of higher education. It just means that higher education needs to listen more. They’ve got to innovate more. They’ve got to stop working within this rigid model. And they’ve got to unbundle the 120-credit degree there as well as the master’s degree. They’ve got to make things in a more stackable format. They’ve got to create alternative credentials. They’ve also got to take somebody’s non-credit experiences and turn them into credit because, if you think about what education really is, it’s really about earning these competencies that make you an expert in something that allows you to work in the workforce.Jim Fong
In the past, colleges and universities have used credits to define expertise, but more important than credits is whether a learner has particular knowledge and being able to quantify and recognize it. The comprehensive learner record and digital credentials are making that quantification and recognition more of a possibility.
What Google, IBM, and others are doing is challenging the old higher-ed model. They want high-performing employees—if employees can be measured against competencies, it doesn’t matter whether or not they have a degree. These companies are going to develop what they need themselves if they can’t get it, but they do look for higher education to be a major player.
UPCEA has a major study to be released soon, and it shows that employers look at higher education in a very positive way. They just need to be listened to, and they need to be part of the process. That’s where higher education has a chance to become more relevant in the future. Despite the size of Google, Amazon, and others, there is a place for them. Higher education needs choose to reinvent itself.
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Study: Supporting and Retaining the New Professional Learner
[09:34] – UPCEA did a study with Salesforce called Supporting & Retaining the New Professional Learner: How Continuing Education Leaders Can Meet the Needs and Expectations of Today’s Learners. What are some highlights?
The UPCEA/Salesforce study looks at using predictive analytics in getting leads to become students and at the customer experience. They surveyed a large group of potential learners and found out what’s important to them and how they want to be engaged. They identified six personas that respond very differently. The study helps institutions determine whether they are ready for the very complicated new adult learner.
The new adult learner wants acknowledgment of their inquiry and to be able to get information very easily, but they don’t necessarily want to talk to a person right away. Technology, process, and people each have a role to play. The study helps address whether the institution has a strategy to better engage, convert, and retain this future learner.
Human beings play a role but should not dominate the process because that’s a potentially inefficient process. Automatic through technology and processes need to be be used too.
Other UPCEA Research
[12:58] – What other UPCEA research efforts should we highlight?
- The Online Program Experience: Exploring Student Experiences and Staff Perceptions (InsideTrack/UPCEA)
This report provide new data and insights into how best to support online students, drawing on a survey of 5,771 students and 496 staff members from 25 public and private institutions. It looks at online students’ challenges and perceptions of the support services at their institutions, as well as staff member’s perceptions of the needs of their online learners.
- Who Stops Out of College and Why? (StraighterLine/UPCEA)
This critical empirical research study profiles the disengaged learner to better understand their situations and motivations in relation to higher education. The study focuses on individuals who have college credits but are no longer attending college to identify why they stopped attending and what motivates them to re-engage.
UPCEA will also release some data from a new study in April 2022 that looks at what employers need in terms of education and training in the future.
The Great Resignation and Its Impact on Continuing Education and Professional Development
[17:43] – “Outlook for 2022: 10 Trends to Consider for Professional, Continuing and Online (PCO) Education” mentions the Great Resignation. How do you see the Great Resignation impacting continuing education and professional development?
The Great Resignation is a warning sign for many things. It represents a power shift from employers to workers. Employees have more choice, and, as a result, employers have to pay more and offer more benefits.
However, business and industry will want to wrestle some of that power back from employees. Automation is playing a role. Employers will automate more things, and that’s going to change our economy. It’s going to change the way the worker of the future and impact what workforce skills are needed.
This automation of the future will redefine our workforce and will put different constraints and expectations on higher education. Institutions need to anticipate what this workforce of the future will need. The Great Resignation is a signal to higher education to look to the future to better align itself with that future.
Collaboration Between Continuing Education Providers and Employers
[22:11] – Are you seeing continuing education providers and employers collaborate effectively to address the need for ongoing lifelong learning?
Colleges and universities are partnering more with business and industry and giving them a stronger presence at the table. In the past, the higher education model was faculty-defined expertise and competencies. For higher education to become more relevant in the future, it needs to engage the employer more.
Looking at the bigger picture, business and industry need to be a larger part of the curriculum development. It can’t just be faculty defining the curriculum and determining the whole occupational pathway for a particular profession. Institutions are engaging employers and using them as true advisors. This is happening at a greater pace. Jim sees it at UPCEA and in the media more broadly.
Collaboration Between Academia and Trade and Professional Associations
[24:41] – Are you seeing academic continuing education providers and trade and professional associations collaborating effectively to meet the needs for lifelong learning?
There are a number of efforts within UPCEA.
- Many UPCEA members are involved in engineering and working with the International Association of Continuing Engineering Education. They’ve come together as a collaborative group of institutions to help define what engineering needs are in the future because engineers are faced with many challenges.
- There have also been efforts in the UPCEA community related to coding, cybersecurity, and boot camps because of high demand for professionals in these areas.
- There was a teacher gap 10 years ago, and UPCEA institutions came together with the support of statewide and national associations to help.
- UPCEA is starting to look at healthcare. Nurses have been through a lot lately, and they anticipate there’s going to be a demand for more nurses in the future.
Exciting Trends in Learning and Learntech
[30:25] – What are some of the trends in learning generally, adult learning, or learning technology that have you most excited right now?
[30:52] – Jim is excited about and terrified by automation. There are many opportunities with drones, autonomous vehicles, etc. He hopes we get to the point where higher education is more integrated into these emerging errors, through degrees and non-degree involvement.
There are also opportunities for people to jump into and out of an industry, which highlights the need to for more customized education. It’s the transformation of education that gets Jim excited. Jim wants all UPCEA members to think more about accessibility—including making their offerings more price-accessible. They also need to make it more valuable. Jim is bullish on alternative credentialing.
I really believe that [alternative credentials] are going to transform higher education. It’s going to be such an important part of our new economy. We really need to look at how do we actually move from a legacy-driven, 120-credit model here to something that’s more prepared for the future or more unbundled for the future or more accessible.Jim Fong
Jim doesn’t want to see any of UPCEA’s members fail because they’re too rigid in terms of the degree. Even though he doesn’t know what the future will hold, there are indicators that the opportunity for institutions will be to provide more access, provide more value, and make sure that their curriculum meets the needs of employers.
Employers need to play a role and help define the necessary skills to be successful in particular industries and job roles. Higher education can no longer do that independently. Even though higher education has leveraged business and industry in the past, it hasn’t been to the degree and magnitude necessary for the future.
Advice for Continuing Education Providers
[34:06] – What’s one piece of advice you have for continuing education providers to help them be successful and effective?
Don’t be wed to the 120-credit model or 36-credit graduate model. Learners can get that bachelor’s degree by doing a number of certificates along the way, getting an associate’s degree, and taking what they’ve learned in training courses.
My learning should get me to the same place of competency here…. I want them to provide education and access in a very stackable, interchangeable way. It’s like a Lego thing here where all the pieces fit together, and then you get something beautiful at the end. But everything that you’re creating along the way has relevancy, has beauty in it…. The currency of education has been a credit, but a credit, as a denomination or a currency, doesn’t really say a whole heck of a lot…. This very rigid 120-credit model thing is not as fast, is not as adaptable for what I see as a future economy that’s going to be fast-moving.Jim Fong
[36:32] – Wrap-up
Jim Fong is chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). Check out his blog Benchmark This!, and connect with Jim on LinkedIn.
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