State of CE: 90% of colleges struggle to digitally ‘engage’ students

A new Modern Campus report shows that several barriers may be hurting overall retention and engagement numbers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for higher education institutions to engage and reach students. While some have been innovative in their approaches, many have failed to truly connect with them, according to a new report from Modern Campus.

More than 70% of higher ed executives surveyed across North America say digital engagement and their websites are the top marketing tools they have to pique student interest and get them to register, yet only 10% say they are “very effective” at utilizing them.

That is one many takeaways from the State of Continuing Education 2021: Exposing the Modern Learner Engagement Gap report released Tuesday by Modern Campus and its online publication, The EvoLLLution.

Researchers who performed the survey of 213 higher ed leaders – 60% at universities, 30% at community colleges and 7.5% at regional or state systems – identified areas where institutions must make strides to reach students and boost all-important enrollment and retention numbers.

“Modern colleges and universities address their engagement gap by making it unbelievably easy to not just enroll but also provide students with clear, personalized career pathways,” said Brian Kibby, chief executive officer of Modern Campus. “The data from this year’s report spells out the risk of not meeting the needs of modern learners. Those that do will thrive. We know this because we see it in our customers every day — on average they grow annual revenue by 19%.”

The growing gaps

Modern Campus conducted its survey in November and December of 2020. The majority of those who took part were management-level employees (40%) or executives on the academic (18%) or administrative side (12%).

Many said they have faced hurdles in trying to close gaps and provide pathways students crave.

  • More than a third said their registration systems are not equipped to serve non-traditional students. Nearly the same amount said they don’t have access to those students’ data.
  • Nearly 50% said they struggled to get buy-in from important stakeholders – faculty, staff and other campus leaders – that would help students forge non-degree-to-traditional-degree paths, despite senior leaders saying it is one of their priorities.
  • The majority cited the tremendous effort it takes to overcome those barriers when trying to deliver those paths for students – from administrative burdens to market demand, overall cost and time.

The costs, however, by not being able to reach them could be impactful.

“Traditional approaches of delivering traditional credentials to traditional students aren’t working, and that’s clear from this year’s State of CE report,” said Amrit Ahluwalia, editor-in-chief of The EvoLLLution. “While it appears the modern learner engagement gap is widening, results from the survey also highlight the opportunities for colleges and universities to address their respective engagement challenges.”

Bridging the engagement gap

Authors said an important element that often gets lost in the swirling debate over non-degree vs. traditional degree paths are the students themselves. Colleges and universities should not lose sight of their mission to deliver to all students. The majority of adult learners (70%) have said they are leaning toward non-degree programs. Yet less than half say institutions are helping to provide them with continuing education-to-workforce paths.

“There’s a widespread notion among credit faculty that CE programs steal their students,” said Scott Cashman, Manager of Continuing Education at Harper College in the report. “But there’s very little recognition of the fact that CE students and credit students are very different people with different goals.”

The one variable that seems to have changed the outlook on CE is the pandemic. The majority of those who took part in the survey responded favorably or were neutral about how their institutions are seeing continuing education. Authors said it is clear that senior leaders are recognizing both the potential revenue streams (and potentially losing some), their own enrollment challenges and meeting students where they are going.

Researchers said the biggest growth areas are stackable credentials (79%), micro credentials (75%) and customized corporate training (69%), while apprenticeships and senior education appeared to be waning.

In the report, authors released a series of recommendations that may help institutions better engage with students and grow these pathways:

  1. Don’t devalue CE. Position it “strategically and budgetarily” to guide students along that path from simple credential to lifelong learning.
  2. Foster dialogue with faculty. Stress the importance and value of continuing education.
  3. Consider areas of interest. Stackable credentials, micro credentials and customized corporate training engagements are hot and should be leveraged.
  4. Ensure websites deliver to all students. They should not solely be tailored to degree-seeking students but those on the CE path – and that includes registration and enrollment.
  5. Enhance advising and experiential learning. Make sure that pathways for all students, including non-traditional students are clearly defined, especially on institution websites.
  6. Don’t complicate enrollment. Make it as easy for non-traditional students to register as possible.
  7. Check your CMS. Does it allow for these students to personalize their experience and create their own paths to success?
  8. Promote, promote, promote: Any strong program, including CE, needs the backing of a strong marketing presence to drive interest and let students know about the paths they can take.
  9. What about a separate SIS for CE students? A standalone student information system could help institutions “gain real-time insights into programs and campaigns.”
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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