Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Last Future

I’m just old enough to remember when evening classes were the hotbed of enrollment growth.

Back in the late 90’s, when the economy was booming, many employers had programs that paid for employees to take classes at night.  I made a habit of teaching at least one night class per semester, even after moving into administration, just because the night students were so good.  They were mostly older, and for whatever academic rawness some brought with them, they had drive.  They were on a mission, and as any teacher can tell you, that’s half the battle.

Now, evening enrollments are struggling.  Employer reimbursements are much scarcer than they once were.  (That’s why Amazon’s new program was newsworthy.)  Adult student enrollments are being cannibalized by online programs.

Oddly, while evening programs are struggling, day programs aren’t.  The most traditional offerings are as solid as they’ve ever been.  From mid-morning to early afternoon, the place is packed.  (Summer is an exception.)  The traditional-aged students like to take classes in the morning and early afternoon so they can go to their jobs in the late afternoon and evening.  And adult students who work during the day are often happier to go online than they would be to schlep to campus after work.

I’ve seen the shift on the student support side, too.  As recently as a few years ago, the active discussion was about evening coverage in the various offices.  Now, it’s much more about developing online chat capability, and making sure that we have enough tech-savvy people in each area at the right times.  Chat software doesn’t help if there’s nobody at the keyboard.

We still have evening programs, of course, but we’re in that awkward transitional phase when the old method is declining but still important, and the new one still isn’t universally accepted.  So we run both, with all of the support costs that entails.  

Even weekend classes have been slow to take off.  It wasn’t all that long ago that evenings and weekends represented the new frontiers.  Now they seem like landlines in a cellular age; still useful for limited purposes, but not where you’d put new resources.  For a while, weekends looked like the Next Big Thing, but they never quite made it.  Online courses have supplanted them.

Now the major challenge with online programs is moving from an “encourage the early adopter” mode to serious scale.  In the early years, we built the online offerings based on individual interest and enthusiasm, and we’ve basically added layers to that since.  But we’re at the inflection point now where it’s just not reasonable anymore to run the online area as an experiment.  It has become an integral part of our offerings, and it’s growing, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of our offerings.  That means that we can’t just rely on volunteers anymore.  Some of the holdouts will have to adapt to the new modality, even if they’d really rather not.  That will bring its own set of diplomatic challenges, but the enrollment is where the enrollment is.

The most traditional offerings are still strong, and the most futuristic ones are strong.  Last year’s future is where we’re hurting.  Seems like there’s a lesson in there somewhere...