Conversations with higher education leaders about online learning, the future, and the pandemic’s lasting impact on higher education.

An interview with: Dr. Michael Huffman, Virginia Commonwealth University – Founding Director of the Office of Continuing and Professional Education (retired), Founder Lexicon Advisors

Dr. Michael Huffman is a long-time leader in the field of professional and continuing education. He spent the better part of two decades with Virginia Commonwealth University — first as a faculty member and then with ever-expanding roles leading continuing education for the university. Among his many areas of expertise are online education, digital and micro-credentials, and strategic corporate relationships. He has served in a board capacity for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). Dr. Huffman is a strategic advisor and investor to Fourth Rev, an ed tech company that collaborates with industry leaders and top universities worldwide to deliver the best of career-focused education. He recently joined the Advisory Board of myFootpath.

Dr. George Rohde interviewed Dr. Huffman as we approached fall 2022. Here are edited excerpts of his expertise, with a particular focus on online education and reengagement trends he is seeing as well as ongoing work in the marketplace.

Rohde: Well, first let me say, I’m excited to work with you! Let’s start this conversation with what are you working on? What gets you excited in the [online education] industry these days?

Huffman:  I got involved with myFootpath because I am a huge believer in adult learners, and the value a college degree can bring to adults later in life. I focused most of my career at the university level in continuing education, and I saw again and again the value education can bring to enhance and develop the careers of adult learners.   

Rohde: That’s a great overview. How are you seeing universities approach reengagement of adult learners? How has the pandemic factored into this approach?

Huffman: Well, university enrollments are down 4-5% nationally, and community colleges are down even more at 8% or so just last year. So, there are lots of students who stopped out or didn’t get started at all during the pandemic. These lower student numbers are a substantial drain on universities and the tuition revenue these students bring. This trend is compounded by the looming enrollment cliff in 2025. The pandemic worsened this substantial pressure on student enrollments, and it’s only going to get more challenging as the decade continues. 

I think universities are now seeing reengagement of adult learners as one of the few strategies they can actively pursue to try to make up this student shortfall. That said, I think universities are just starting to see the real scale behind this opportunity. By that, I mean most universities go after the students who stop out for a year or two already. However, the opportunity can be much, much larger when you go back two decades or more. It’s a different scale, and universities are just discovering how powerful this channel can become.

Rohde:  What role did the move to ‘all online’ coursework during the pandemic play in universities seeing the reengagement opportunity?

Huffman: The pandemic was an all-out crisis. I would characterize much of the education colleges delivered as emergency online coursework rather than online education. The pandemic forced the hand of universities. They had to innovate, right now, with online coursework.

But now, universities are really stepping back, evaluating their early work [in the pandemic], and enhancing what they have done. I believe universities need to meet students where they are, and right now, many students are seeking an online, or at least partially online, experience. I think many universities have risen to the challenge of delivering an online education. They have turned the emergency work into a strategic imperative to bring high-quality online degree programs to the marketplace.

Rohde: What are you seeing amongst leading universities in online education? Where are they making investments?

Huffman: Many universities I have conversations with are bringing their extensive resources to help faculty teach online. Let me illustrate. Some faculty, especially early in the pandemic, just put their syllabus online and posted the homework. Now, I am seeing faculty really invest in making online coursework great. Faculty are looking at the A/V equipment, figuring out how to use multiple cameras/angles, making sure they have the right microphones to capture sound, working with instructional designers on formats and visuals and interaction. The depth of [course] development has evolved significantly in the past 18 months, and I think it will only continue to get better among leading online universities.

Rohde: Do you see universities investing in reengagement?

Huffman: Yes, I do see universities making some investments [in reengagement], but they often just aren’t positioned to capture all possible students from a full-scale reengagement effort. As you know from myFootpath’s work, it can take years of multi-channel marketing messages to reengage an adult student. Stop-out students take more time than traditional students, as they are leading adult lives now. Most universities are focused on new students, and that gets most of the investment. Reengagement may get a partial position or a student worker to assist, but that’s nowhere near what’s needed. I think that’s good news for myFootpath, especially as you invest in your institutional partners’ success through tuition share and other financial models.   

Rohde: Thank you, Michael, for sharing your insights and perspective with me today. I look forward to sharing your comments with our readers.