President’s corner: David Decker embraces tech trends to keep enrollment rolling at Franklin U

Franklin University is always looking for new content areas to buff enrollment. However, Decker believes institutions regularly overlook how they can modernize content delivery to attract students. 

Small- to medium-sized institutions that staunchly support the on-campus-only, semester-based higher education model can see their enrollment dry up as a dwindling cohort of traditionally aged students aged 18-24 flock in droves to big-brand institutions. And in May, Ernst & Young urged university leaders to embrace fully digital modes of learning that prioritize flexibility for today’s digitally native students and to attract new student demographics as the enrollment cliff looms ahead.

For Franklin University, it’s just another Tuesday.

Franklin University’s student makeup is more than 62% part-time, predominantly in their 30s, and virtually all learning online. While the school’s mission since 1902 is to serve older students, President David Decker’s 16-year leadership has leveraged today’s tech tools to flip spades.

“Franklin University was founded as a night school for working people to gain professional degrees,” Decker says. “By and large, we’re still sort of doing that with 120 years of technology change and expansion behind us.”

Offering online programs since 1997 and dedicating an entire institute to enhancing its learning experience, the university steamrolled the pandemic, maintaining positive growth every term. Its lowest growth point was 4%, while the overall higher education landscape experienced a 5% decline on average. In the academic year 2022-23, growth returned to double digits, according to Decker.

However, being a predominantly online institution comes with a price tag. “In the space we’re in, it’s a very competitive environment,” Decker says. “If you want to attract students, you have to conduct yourself in a very competitive manner.”

Facing fierce competition from the likes of Strayer University and other online college players, Decker leads Franklin University with a cool hand and an eye toward the future landscape of higher education.

“You have to be open to that. You have to be open to fertility,” Decker says. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Nothing’s good except what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years.'”

Here are some spaces in higher education Decker believes are poised for growth—and his school’s success.

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How micro-credentials update school content and structure

Franklin University is always looking for new content areas to buff enrollment. However, Decker believes institutions regularly overlook how they can modernize content delivery to attract students.

“When universities are having problems, they often look at the products they offer and think of this as a content question. They say, ‘We need a cybersecurity program’ or something else that’s the current flavor of the month,” Decker says. “And, of course, you have to have the content. We view it as a content and academic structure question.”

Enter micro-credentials. The benefits of higher education’s latest buzzword include diversifying students’ course structure, as Decker explained, and easing students’ transition into the workforce with better-articulated skills and preparation. Watch Decker explain how.

“In today’s environment, we’re seeing this disaggregation of the university curriculum into much smaller units that are still credit-bearing, and their goal is to accomplish the training and productive goals of corporations while still residing within the accredited universities,” Decker says. “You accomplish both these things if you can intelligently disaggregate the curriculum into smaller units and then rearticulate it back into a degree program.”

FranklinWorks Marketplace, which houses its micro-credentials, boasts collaborations with Coursera, MedCerts and IBM, to name a few. Among the proliferation of micro-credentials and opportunities to partner with intermediary companies, one of Decker’s primary focuses is ensuring they are standardized and result in valid industry certification.

Like the content intermediaries that provide Franklin University credential programs, Decker believes institutions today cannot ignore the wide variety of distribution intermediaries that have proliferated in the last 20 years.

“You have to be engaged with their structures to be effective. Just saying, ‘we have online offerings,’ and putting that on your website and waiting for people to call you on the phone is not an effective strategy,” Decker says. “You have to be engaged with the distribution structures in your segment.”

Deeper articulation is on Franklin’s checklist this academic year

As Decker examines workforce shortages in nursing, teaching, IT, cybersecurity and other disciplines, Franklin University is actively working on deep articulation between its partnered community colleges, corporate partners and government partners to streamline students’ pathways into the workforce.

Franklin University is pursuing this goal by removing “points of friction”: delays due to document transfers, credit for prior learning, admissions and financial aid processing operations. With over 135 community and technical colleges Franklin University is partnered with, Decker believes this is essential to properly managed workforce development programs.

“Deep articulation is driving a lot of our work these days and will certainly be of rising importance in the coming year,” Decker says. 

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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