Leading the Way: Innovations Driving Higher Education Success

Artwork for this article is created by Malvika Shah.

Multiple studies point to students’ demand for more online learning and colleges’ response to investing in online, hybrid, and flexible learning options. While some colleges have faced declining enrollment, others have thrived by adapting to online learning. We talk to experts whose schools are succeeding about the critical factors for colleges in the post-COVID era, focusing on innovative approaches, collaboration, and learner-centric solutions.


Online and hybrid enrollment is growing, with two-thirds of colleges and universities investing in online programs, according to the 2023 Chloe 8 report. Online is trending in higher education. To succeed, colleges and universities must rethink their traditional models and find new ways to engage learners. A 2022 report from McKinsey & Company notes an 11% increase in total enrollment at the largest online universities, increased financial investment, and increased quality in online programs. This paper examines strategies that have enabled certain institutions to succeed. Hear success stories from schools nationwide serving learners of all ages through various modalities and building positive relationships with partners.

Key Success Factors

Online Options: Beyond the Classroom

The rapid shift to remote learning underscored the importance of robust online offerings. Colleges swiftly adapting to this new reality maintained continuity and attracted learners from diverse backgrounds. Curtis Voelker, from Central Penn College, emphasizes moving beyond traditional courses. He says it’s about asking, “How do you need it? How can we work together to make it a win for everyone?”. Voelker works with organizations around the Central Penn College region to create workforce development programs. He emphasizes the role of “Creative Conversations” in genuinely listening to partners’ needs and developing custom courses for their employees. Depending on the organization’s needs, courses are delivered online, in-person, and hybrid.


Tailoring Courses for Adult Learners

Understanding adult learners’ aspirations is essential. Colleges with relevant courses, flexible schedules, and practical skills appeal to this demographic. Kim McNutt, from California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), advocates for targeted programs that empower learners.

The “Once a Toro, Always a Toro” Re-engagement Program

CSUDH re-engaged over 800 students within two years as part of its “Once a Toro, Always a Toro” re-engagement program. Toro is the school’s mascot. McNutt details the success of the program. They reached out to over 8,000 students to gather information and build relationships. The team hosted a listening session in 2019, where a dozen students shared their stories. These narratives were a foundation for creating personalized solutions and support structures tailored to the non-traditional student experience.


Breaking Down Barriers

CSUDH implemented a concierge model to facilitate returning students, assigning dedicated staff to guide students through re-enrollment. This approach reduced barriers by eliminating applications, identifying scholarships, and navigating financial aid. McNutt emphasizes the importance of being proactive and meeting the learners where they are, both physically and in terms of their life circumstances.


Flexible Learning Models

Traditional academic structures often hinder the return of ‘stop-out’ students. “We have to change the mindset of how we bring these students back. They cannot come in as a freshman, first-year student, or transfer. And, they can’t come and sit in the class Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 8 to 8:50. Or Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 11:30. So, we’re offering more classes in the evening. We offered more courses online, of course. We’re trying to make it more convenient. I hate to use the cliché again, but meet the learner where they are,” McNutt said. This flexibility allows students to pursue education on their terms, accommodating their unique schedules and life situations.

Microcredentials and Certificates

Innovation and Leadership at Augusta Online

Short-term credentials enhance employability. Institutions that provide microcredentials cater to working adults seeking career advancement. Voelker and Central Penn emphasize custom-designed courses that go beyond the course catalog to ensure corporate partners get the skills their employees need.

Augusta Online Dean Marc Austin is a firm advocate for the strategic use of micro-credentialing to cater to the specific needs of both learners and organizations. “Through micro-credentialing is certainly one. Through stackable micro-credentialing, which is even better, it stacks into a degree, and then through degrees itself,” notes Austin. This approach allows learners to acquire targeted skills and seamlessly build toward a comprehensive degree over time.

Hear more about Augusta Online’s successful online expansion on the DigitalEDU Dialogues podcast.

Listening and Collaborating for Success

Augusta Online’s collaboration with the US Army exemplifies creating a tailored continuing education program. Recognizing the military’s expansive workforce with constant training needs, Augusta Online took a consultative approach. “It’s never a good idea to go into any organization and say, ‘I’ve got the certificate for you,'” Austin emphasizes. “Let’s figure out what your pain points are and build around that,” he adds, showcasing the effectiveness of a collaborative, needs-based strategy in developing both microcredentials and degrees.

Strategic Financial Solutions: The Genesis of eSpelman

We talked to Dr. Tiffany Watson, who explained the financial strategy behind eSpelman. Administrators wanted to provide financial support for students burdened by debt after graduation. “How can we leverage this great work to generate more alternative revenue and scholarship dollars for undergraduate students, also serving a new population of learners in the way Spelman has done so well in teaching and learning excellence for so many years?” Watson explained. The concept for eSpelman is a combination of creating alternative revenue streams and scholarships while catering to a new demographic of learners.

The Essence of Spelman: Academic Rigor and Empowerment

What sets eSpelman apart is what Dr. Watson refers to as the ‘Spelman secret sauce’—a unique combination of academic rigor, empowerment, and confidence-building. She shared, “How can Spelman leverage the brand of excellence? What our faculty do in the design of their courses and the empowerment and confidence building that we do for our women scholars and take all of that and harness all of that, what we call the secret sauce or the Spelman secret sauce.” This formula has been integral to Spelman’s legacy and is now seamlessly integrated into the certificate programs, addressing critical workforce needs and facilitating the immediate application of skills in professional settings.


Case Studies: The specifics of success

Central Penn College

Central Penn College’s Center for Workforce Excellence exemplifies these success factors. Central Penn paves the way for a dynamic, responsive, and transformative education by embracing customized solutions, fostering partnerships, and nurturing creative conversations. Watch the full interview with Curtis Voelker.


California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH)

Kim McNutt’s insights from CSUDH provide valuable lessons for other institutions:

Watch the full interview with Kim McNutt here.


Spelman College

Dr. Tiffany Watson from Spelman College sheds light on strategic financial solutions and the essence of Spelman’s academic approach:

Strategic Financial Solutions: The Genesis of eSpelman

Financial strategy: eSpelman was designed to support students burdened by debt and create alternative revenue streams.

Scholarship Creation: The initiative aims to generate scholarship dollars for undergraduate students.

New Demographics: eSpelman caters to a new population of learners, expanding Spelman’s reach.

The Essence of Spelman: Academic Rigor and Empowerment

Spelman Secret Sauce: A blend of academic rigor, empowerment, and confidence-building sets eSpelman apart.

Leveraging Excellence: The program leverages Spelman’s brand of excellence in teaching and learning.

Workforce Relevance: Certificate programs address critical workforce needs and allow for the immediate application of skills.

Augusta Online

Dean Marc Austin’s insights from Augusta Online contribute to the discussion:

Micro-credentialing: A Stepping Stone to Success

Strategic Use: Micro-credentialing caters to specific learner and organizational needs.

Stackable Approach: Stackable micro-credentials seamlessly build toward comprehensive degrees.

DigitalEDU Dialogues: Learn more about Augusta Online’s successful online expansion on the DigitalEDU Dialogues podcast.

Listening and Collaborating for Success

Tailored Continuing Education: Augusta Online collaborates with the US Army to create a tailored continuing education program.

Consultative Approach: Understanding pain points and building customized solutions is effective.

Needs-Based Strategy: Developing both microcredentials and degrees requires understanding the unique needs of learners, employers, and industry partners.

Implementing successful micro-credentialing programs involves strategic planning and alignment with the needs of learners and employers. Here are some steps other colleges can take to create effective micro-credentialing initiatives.

Artwork by Malvika Shah

Assess Demand and Market Trends:

Collaborate with Industry Partners:

Design Relevant and Focused Programs:

Flexible Delivery Modes:

Quality Assurance and Assessment:

Transparency and Credential Recognition:

Leverage Existing Resources:

Promote Awareness and Accessibility:

Evaluate and Iterate:

Faculty Development and Support:

When your institution is ready to implement these strategies, The Babb Group is here to help with experienced instructional designers, curriculum developers, assessment experts, subject matter experts, and project managers. Schedule a free consultation today.

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Angela Britcher

Angela Britcher is an instructional designer and content creator with The Babb Group. She is also an adjunct professor of business and communications.
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