The CEO of a Japanese airline once cautioned his employees in a video address that, “We are not here to chase revenue. We are here to deliver a great experience, and fulfill our mission. If we do this, revenue will not be a concern.”

Student experience has been on my mind this month, specifically the value of experience in higher education. How have the roles of the university main campus and professional and continuing education (PCE) units changed—and what changes are still needed? What should change look like in the 21st century? Which divisions should be pioneering innovation and the student experience?

As you likely know, Story+Structure got its start in extended education. It is, in fact, the industry space that a majority of our clients call home. This month we attended two conferences in the higher education industry: the American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s (UPCEA) annual conference in Chicago, IL. While each event focuses on a different audience—ACE is geared toward deans and university presidents while UPCEA is designed for extension and PCE units—the conversations we had with attendees at both events, as well as the session topics and speaker content, left us with a lingering question: are PCE/Extension units being out-innovated by university main campuses?

E.L. Luther - the first Extension Agent in Wisconsin made his rounds on a two-cylinder Indian motorcycle.

E.L. Luther - the first Extension Agent in Wisconsin made his rounds on a two-cylinder Indian motorcycle.

Innovation is a regular topic of conversation for the PCE crowd, and with good reason. University main campuses are often seen as slow and deliberate bureaucracies, lumbering along under the weight of intransigent faculty and administrators, while PCE units have been the innovators and implementers of change. PCEs were the first to send faculty from campuses off-site to share their best on-campus practices with more rural communities, and they led the charge for widespread online learning. It has long been the case that PCE played a vital modernization role within the often risk-adverse academic culture.

It is my personal belief that higher education institutions must undergo a drastic shift in how they perceive themselves and wish to be perceived in order to thrive in the 21st century. Like any other customer-facing organization, they must begin to see themselves as experience providers. Until recently, I was certain that PCE units would be the ones to bring about the necessary change toward a modern university experience. From what I saw at ACE and UPCEA, though, it is the main campus university leadership that is taking the lead in thinking and acting differently.

A "roving exhibit" of an electrified kitchen from Oregon State University took the future to farmers in 1938

A "roving exhibit" of an electrified kitchen from Oregon State University took the future to farmers in 1938

From my office window—or, I should say from my airplane seat—the relationship between PCE units and their campuses have begun to drastically shift. I felt this shift myself when I worked in PCE; we went from being a quirky group that did cool stuff and happened to make money, to a university-recognized money-maker that needed to stop taking risks. Nothing we did fundamentally changed, but the university’s understanding of our business did. Once that happened, our focus shifted to scaling successful programs and replicating those successes that maximized revenue. Essentially, we took on the traditional understanding of the university model.

At the same time that we shifted from innovation to revenue generation, the university began to invest heavily in new buildings, branding campaigns and fancy gyms. Our campus was transforming, improving the campus experience for students. We had new buildings by César Pelli, smart classroom technology, a winning football team, the fanciest gym I have ever worked out in, and much more.

In retrospect, 10 years ago—around the time that Story+Structure began talking about human-centered design and the user experience in the PCE space—some of our most forward-thinking main campuses were starting to undergo head-to-toe makeovers, leaving PCE behind to focus on more traditional university initiatives. In my conversations with campus leaders at ACE it was clear that many of these people understand the role that student experience (the university environment, holistically) plays in the future vitality of their institutions.

Though not complete, and hardly perfect, our main campuses may be leading the charge when it comes to higher education student experience. If so, that represents an interesting challenge for PCE because one thing that hasn’t changed is that when main campus talks about students, they are talking about undergraduates. Most university campuses are not building registration or course experiences to cater to the needs of a single mom who wants to earn a certificate on nights and weekends. This is why PCE remains more vital than ever, and why we need to start innovating again, instead of just talking about it.

What do you think PCEs’ role will be in defining and supporting the student experience of the future?

Guy Felder is our Chief Strategist. He writes on all things customer experience and marketing. Click here to read more from Guy.