The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Bringing an Insider-Outsider Perspective to UPCEA’s Members

A man (Jay Halfond) smiles at the camera for a headshot.

By Jay Halfond

Shortly after pivoting twelve years ago from a deanship to a faculty position, I realized the only job better than being a dean was now being able to help other university leaders. A highlight of this career change has been visiting campuses as part of a consulting or accreditation team and conducting numerous solo consulting engagements over the years. A distinctive strength of American higher education is our breadth of institutions, each with its own story, characteristics, and challenges. All in all, either virtually or in-person, I have worked with over twenty-five colleges and universities – and discovered, and came to appreciate, what made each unique and important.   

Consulting shares some qualities of an anthropologist: visiting a community as an outsider, studying its features, and constructing a narrative of its culture. The difference is that the consultant’s goal is not simply to understand a university but to identify opportunities and pathways to impact that institution going forward. As leaders change, enrollments dwindle, and competition increases, these universities find themselves at a critical juncture. In many cases, this lands in our online and professional education world – and mirrors how online learning and alternative credentials have disrupted markets by creating opportunities for some, and threats to others.   

The Growing Importance of Online and Professional Education  

Entities that focus on online and professional continuing education are moving from the margins into the mainstream as a critical, strategic element in the future of their institutions. Schools that relied on a near monopoly of local students face the threat of a buyer’s market where students can go anywhere, whenever, and however they wish through nationally recognized online programs. These schools are fighting to evolve and, in some cases, even survive, by enlarging their own online capabilities and exploring new programs, markets, audiences, and partnerships. Our vast array and diversity of academic institutions is now endangered. In this context, consulting can have significant impact, and even uncover many opportunities.  

Each consultancy requires an immersion into identifying those distinctive qualities and circumstances that will ultimately influence the fate of part or much of a university. Consulting is largely active listening. While I do as much background analysis as possible to prepare, my primary goal is to build an itinerary that will unearth creative possibilities. I interview between twenty-five and sometimes more than one hundred faculty and staff, up, down, and across the university – generally one on one, but sometimes in small groups. There is simply no way to know beforehand which conversations will yield the greatest insight. I build my understanding, and gradually my observations and recommendations, as I go along – discreetly reality-testing these along the way.    

The Power of the Outside Voice 

The result is typically a substantive report and debriefing, often shared widely throughout the institution – with the goal of teaching the leadership and community something about itself that was not necessarily self-evident and suggesting possible paths for organizational change. In short, what senior leaders and others need to, but don’t necessarily want to, hear. One recent consultancy brought UPCEA to a regional public university, whose enrollments had fallen by almost one-third in a dozen years. The president challenged the university to increase online programs that could restore these numbers. Working with the deans and others, UPCEA helped identify high-potential program opportunities, and shape a case for a more dynamic online enterprise. Even if the president’s ambitions are not fully realized, the university is on track to grow fully online degree programs significantly.     

The relationship doesn’t always end once the report is delivered, since a consultant’s understanding and commitment can naturally segue into helping administrators with the next steps. Overcoming internal impediments and paralysis, and building consensus and momentum, can be even more critical than simply identifying external opportunities and optimal organizational structures. This becomes a consulting opportunity to coach leaders, faculty, and staff on steps towards implementation.  

Personally, the major benefit of this work has been to overcome my New England myopia. I would sometimes let slip my appreciation for this learning opportunity – like a surgeon thanking a patient for their upcoming operation as part of the doctor’s professional development. However, every institution I encounter during consulting leaves me with a deep respect and a sincere desire for their success. Consulting endeavors are dedicated to improving and, potentially, preserving invaluable academic institutions, one step at a time.   

UPCEA’s Strategic Advisors at Work 

Most of my consulting projects have been carried out under the umbrella of UPCEA. Recently, my focus has shifted towards elevating a lesser-known UPCEA service into a valuable resource for its members. We have built a team of strategic advisors – experts who have worked in this field with more than 30 years average experience – and my role now is to coach this dream team of accomplished professionals to consult across a range of areas and issues.   

Often these customized consulting engagements are coupled with UPCEA’s research expertise. Some examples of recent engagements include: 

  • A nationally ranked, liberals-arts based university was looking to expand its reach by providing focused offerings for adult learners/working professionals. The goal was to advance the mission of the university by serving unmet needs in the community and surrounding region and to generate new revenue for the university. The goal of the engagement with UPCEA was to help understand the feasibility of launching a new school to offer such programs by outlining the key components of its future programmatic portfolio. The UPCEA strategic advising team was able to provide an evidence-based action plan with specified recommendations for programmatic offerings. The new school has been established and has been operational for just over two years. It offers graduate degrees and certificates, alternative credentials, and custom talent development programs. Several degree programs have been launched and almost 400 graduate students are enrolled in them. 
  • A public, west-coast institution that is part of a state system has faced significant enrollment challenges. Since 2020, total enrollment has declined 28%, presenting a substantial risk to its state funding base. The institution partnered with UPCEA’s strategic advising team with the goal of exploring various strategic and organizational considerations in developing an efficient center/college for professional, continuing, and online education and to identify areas for growth and transformation. The strategic advisor team interviewed 60 key staff across several areas of the campus, reviewed internal documents, and leveraged UPCEA’s custom research to develop both short and long-term recommendations to mitigate immediate financial risks and lay a stronger foundation for future growth and long-term sustainability. 

Our combined goal is to help inspire a cohesive, nimble, responsive enterprise to identify market opportunities, create internal and external collaborations and processes, and provide quality education to an ever-growing array of learners.   

Each institutional client determines the specific focus, usually targeting a pain point or a dynamically changing area where an external perspective can be impactful. But the common denominator of our strategic advisors is having the curiosity, respect, experience, imagination, and commitment to help institutions address problems and achieve results. All of us have weathered similar challenges, and with empathy and expertise hope to share this with others.  

 

Jay A. Halfond is Vice-President for Institutional Planning at UPCEA, and Professor of the Practice Emeritus at Boston University and former dean of BU’s Metropolitan College.  To talk to us about your specific challenges, contact us at [email protected].  

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The UPCEA Difference

Unmatched Experience: For more than 100 years, UPCEA consultants have exclusively served the needs of online and professional continuing education programs. UPCEA consultants leverage their extensive industry expertise to expedite solutions, anticipate upcoming shifts, and offer distinct best practices, effectively aiding clients in achieving their goals.

Cost Effectiveness: As a nonprofit, member-serving organization, we provide unmatched value, allowing you to maximize limited research and consulting budgets.

Action in Motion: Our cadre of experienced, skilled authorities and expert practitioners propels you forward, translating research and consulting into impactful implementation, a distinctive hallmark of UPCEA. Our team of current and former institutional leaders will support you, turning research and consulting into action.

Mission Alignment: Like you, our mission is to enhance and expand educational opportunities and outcomes for adult and other non-traditional learners. We share your values and work in partnership with you to advance access and excellence in education.

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