Episode 20: Jonathon Halbesleben, PhD, Dean at the University of Alabama and Expert on Workplace Contentment

Hey everyone, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Jonathon Halbesleben about two areas at critical points of change. The first is the university system and how people are accessing it, and the other is a completely new way to view work life balance. Jonathon is the Dean of a very successful college, the College of Continuing Studies at the University of Alabama. Nationally, distance education has grown 14% while traditional admissions have shrunk 3%. And that continuing trend is going to cause a tremendous shift in terms of how we view universities, and Jonathon shared his view of what the future might look like. He’s also a PhD in organizational psychology, with much of his studies and publications centered around workplace productivity and contentment. It was an enlightening conversation about work life balance, and why we should stop using that phrase. It’s a great episode folks. Check it out. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.



Rudy Fernandez  1:08

Welcome to Marketing Upheaval. My guest is Dr. Jonathon Halbesleben. He’s the Dean of the University of Alabama’s very successful College of Continuing Studies, and a PhD in industrial psychology. Jonathon has written and edited 13 books and published numerous articles. His areas of focus have been workplace stress, work, family issues and employee engagement. He’s a fellow of the American Psychological Association, and the Society for industrial and organizational psychology. So we have two areas that I’d like to talk about today. One is the growth and continuing education. And the other one is the trends in work life balance. Two topics, one expert guest, thank you for joining me, Jonathon.

Jonathon Halbesleben  1:45

Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you.

Continuing Education Enrollment

Rudy Fernandez  1:47

So let’s talk about continuing education we have – overall nationally I think enrollments are down 3% in a traditional University, but in continuing studies are up 15 percent What do you attribute that change to?

Jonathon Halbesleben  2:02

You know, I think it’s a couple of different things. But overall downward trend in enrollments is some of that’s just demographics. It’s true in Alabama. But it’s true nationwide where we’re now moving into the period where we’re getting to very close to being about 18 years post recession. Yeah. And that was a time when people were maybe a little bit more reflective about having children, bringing children into the world. And so we’re actually seeing declines in like, traditional 17-18 year old students that would be going to college. That definitely helps explain the downturns overall in college enrollment. With regard to the more of the distance learning or online education and those increases, I think a big part of it has been that people, they see that that you can get a good education that way. That it can be just as good as that experience you might get on campus, the experience might be different. I mean, you might not be going to football games and you know, visiting the strip or whatever on your campus, you call that area where there’s all the bars and restaurants, yes. But the education itself is just as high quality, but the cost is often lower. That’s a sort of a pivot that we’re seeing where people are realizing I don’t have to move across the country to go to a great school. We’re even seeing that in terms of who is pursuing those online degrees, our average age is actually going down. Most of that’s actually because of undergraduate programs. It’s no longer that, you know, person that’s out in the workforce, that it’s there are traditional students or what we would normally call traditional age college students that are pursuing their degrees online instead. And so we’re seeing, you know, much more growth in that area.

Rudy Fernandez  3:47

The younger students, I imagine just because they’re perfectly comfortable with doing something online and not being present, physically.

Jonathon Halbesleben  3:55

Exactly. Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it, just sort of as an overall, you know, Zeitgeist kind of thing, where they’re used to just doing things, interacting online with people. So it doesn’t even seem weird to them, for example, to have online discussions as part of a course. I mean, they’ve been having online discussions since they were, you know, five years old in some cases.

Rudy Fernandez  4:16

So when a younger student then is looking to earn a degree than on their list of possibilities, you’re saying is earning it from a distance from a university that may not be close by,

Jonathon Halbesleben  4:27

Exactly. Whereas before they might have ruled that out, or that, you know, I think back to when I went to college and even thinking about, well, how far away from home would I be, if I were to move away? And you know, how would the logistics of all that work? That doesn’t even have to be part of the equation now. Sometimes it’s living with their parents to save costs, and then pursuing that online education and realizing it’s just as good as the education they would have gotten if they travel 1000 miles to go get it.

Out of State Students at The University of Alabama

Rudy Fernandez  4:53

So where do your students come from?

Jonathon Halbesleben  4:55

All over the place. About 60% of our students a little bit more than 60% of our students are actually out of the state of Alabama. And there, they cover the entire country. All over the world, particularly through the military, we get students that are stationed in military bases all over the world. And what’s actually kind of neat is when we have our graduation ceremony each semester for our distance learning students is seeing how far people have traveled to attend graduation. And it’s really cool to see folks from way out west – Washington state or even Hawaii, these places, coming to graduation. And it’s the first time they’ve ever been on campus. What’s kind of interesting though, is though, 60% of our students are out of state students. That means 40% of our students are Alabama students, which is actually a little bit higher percentage of Alabama students than our undergraduate class here on campus. And so we’re both serving the state just as well as the campus is but we’re also reaching out to people further away. And that’s been an interesting trend. I think in online education. In general if the assumption has been that it must be at a distance, but if you start to think about it, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because it’s like, does that mean all the Alabama students go to Arizona State and all the Arizona students go to Alabama, you know, it doesn’t really work that way. It’s pretty common for a large chunk of the students to actually live within 50 miles of the campus. And we’ve got distance learning students that are here in Tuscaloosa. But the program that’s offered that they want, distance learning might be the only option that they have to actually pursue it.

Rudy Fernandez  6:26

What’s the percentage of the student body? On campus versus distance?

Jonathon Halbesleben  6:32

It’s 1/8th of the students that are both enrolled in courses and graduate each year are distance learning students that are enrolled exclusively in a distance learning program.

Rudy Fernandez  6:44

So wait, it’s one out of eight students?

Jonathon Halbesleben  6:46

Yes. And what’s really interesting is if you look at the main campus students that take online courses for undergrad, it’s more than double the credit hour production. In other words, main campus students, they’re supplementing their main campus courses with online courses, which we’re certainly open to that. It gives them more flexibility, maybe with a work schedule or to take a course that they can’t otherwise fit into their schedule, but they can take it online, that’s great. But that 1/8th, just the people who are enrolled exclusively in distance learning programs. There’s a whole bunch more students that are taking online courses that are regular Main Campus students.

Creating a Brand for a Higher Education

Rudy Fernandez  7:25

So how has that changed how the University markets itself as a brand? Part of the university traditionally and certainly here at the University of Alabama, it’s the tradition, the sports traditions and success. How do you create that brand so that people feel part of it?

Jonathon Halbesleben  7:45

Yeah, that’s always one of the biggest challenges we face is we don’t necessarily want it to feel like it’s just a degree mill kind of thing. Admittedly, I think that’s something that all Universities are still working on. How do you make it feel like you are really truly part of that community? Some of the ways we do it is by having some of those main campus students with the online students in the same core. So as they go through their discussions, they can’t tell if it’s a student that’s across the country or is back in Tuscaloosa. I mean, you could be interacting with students two doors down from you, and not even realize it so that they can feel like they just truly are part of the community that way. We do try to do things like give them updates on things that are happening on campus, so that they can feel like they’re a part of it, even if  they’re not experiencing it. We do bring them back for like a homecoming celebration, and we involve them in a graduation ceremony that’s separate from there – they still walk across the stage and the normal graduation ceremony – but then we have a reception separately for them, so that they can feel like you know that they’re being celebrated in that way as well. The community thing is a tricky one and it was one I think will always continue to struggle with but what we are finding is that a lot of those students when they come back for graduation, they often feel like they’re part of a community, maybe more than we assume.

Rudy Fernandez  9:08

I’ve had the privilege to come to graduation for a lot of the continuing education students, and there’s just as much emotion and families are here. But I’ve seen a lot of the older students where this has been their dream that they’ve put off. Yeah, and it’s just it’s such a powerful ceremony.

Jonathon Halbesleben  9:26

Right? Exactly, exactly.

Student Demographics at the University of Alabama

Rudy Fernandez  9:28

What break down do you think is older students versus maybe more like the traditional 18 to 23 year old studen?

Jonathon Halbesleben  9:35

The graduate students I think it overwhelmingly it skews older. There are a lot of students where they finish their undergraduate degree and then immediately pursue an online master’s degree for example. Most of the time it’s they get out in the workforce that are out there a few years then they realize they can benefit from those skills or that that credential with the online undergraduate students. Our average age is about 32. But like I said that numbers been going down.

Rudy Fernandez  10:02

Yeah, it used to be about 35, I think, right? And maybe a little older, some of the courses,

Jonathon Halbesleben  10:07

That number on the traditional 18 to 22 year old has been increasing at really noticeable rates.

Rudy Fernandez  10:13

And it’ll that’ll probably continue, I guess. So is there a difference in how you engage the younger students as opposed to the older students?

Jonathon Halbesleben  10:22

I think back when the assumption was that they were all older students, it was a little bit different, maybe way of handling it. What’s kind of interesting is that was challenging for many instructors who were used to teaching traditional students in a classroom and you know, that maybe that didn’t work so well for a large group of people who are coming back to school at a later age and have got more experience and demand more. They don’t necessarily just want to learn the concepts. They want to know how it applies to what they need to know and what they need to do. In somebody that’s almost moving back toward now that can sort of interact with the younger students. One of the really interesting things that’s somewhat related. This is we now have students as early as 10th grade, that are also in some of these programs because we have our early college program, many of those students taking the courses online. So it’s been a unique situation for our instructors to go from teaching, maybe a 16 year old all the way up to, you know, whatever.

Rudy Fernandez  11:19

So, an 18 year old is looking at colleges, universities, and you said it’s part of the equation of “Can I take online classes?” When they were in admissions do they ask these sorts of questions? Do they come up? Are you part of the admissions process?

Jonathon Halbesleben  11:35

Increasingly we are. And, you know, admittedly, that hasn’t really always been the case. And part of it is nothing unique to Alabama. It’s always just been the assumption is it’s a very different group of people. And increasingly now we are bringing up the online option and making that part of the admissions pitches. This is an option. Even trying to get students in depending on when they’ve been admitted to UA are trying to get them into an early college class online. So that 1) they could get a head start. But 2) they could actually see what it’s like to learn online. If they’ve not done that before, through their high school experience.

The Future of Higher Education and Distance Learning

Rudy Fernandez  12:15

What does the future University look like then? What does that new university look like in 5-10 years?

Jonathon Halbesleben  12:21

Yeah. I think the assumption sometimes is that “Oh, my goodness, this is on campus enrollment declines and distance learning enrollment increases, are we going down some path where we become like a totally online type of thing?” I don’t see that ever happening. There will always be a segment of students that’s interested in coming to campus, having that campus experience going to the football games on Saturday, and being part of that community. Even if they take a class online. There will always be that market. It might be a smaller market just based on demographics. But I can’t imagine that we will ever get to a point where people will say “Why would I bother to go to Tuscaloosa, Alabama?” I could be wrong, but I really don’t see that happening.

Behavior Change and Distance Learning

Rudy Fernandez  13:08

Cost has caused a lot of people to change their behavior, especially at a University.

Jonathon Halbesleben  13:12

Right. What I do think we’ll see, in five or 10 years, though, that I think is exciting, is greater access to excellent, public, four year institutions. And that’s not to say that there are excellent two year institutions and all these things, but by not focusing on online as an option, you know, there’s been a void and we end up with some of you know, some of these situations where we’ve got schools that are filling the void that maybe are have less quality. And even the cost, in some cases, some of those schools, it’s actually higher than coming to the University of Alabama and coming to campus. But I think it’s exciting because I think it means, for example, just in the state of Alabama, we increase dramatically our ability to serve the workforce needs of the state. Our reach could be much greater by not making it such that they have to come to campus to get that education. It is a little different model than what we’ve been providing before. But I think it’s a really can only provide good things and we can open up that access.

Rudy Fernandez  14:16

Now I love that it’s evolving because universities were the keepers of knowledge and it was geographically based.

Jonathon Halbesleben  14:22

Right. It’s exciting as well as in terms of just, in general challenging our assumptions about how people learn, and you know, how it all needs to work, even things like, you know, we’re starting to look more carefully at whether an online course has to follow the same 15 or 16 week structure that courses on campus need to follow, or even dealing with facilities and with infrastructure. Much of that just goes away online and it helps us to really kind of challenge the way we go about teaching people.

Universities Adapting to Change

Rudy Fernandez  14:52

How apt do you think universities in general, are to change? My experience with other Universities is they have models that have been in place for a very long time and people don’t want to change those models. I think that here with the College of Continuing Studies, it’s almost an entrepreneurial type mentality. Do you think that’s common in universities? Or do you still run into some walls here with somebody who says we’ve never done it that way kind of thing?

Jonathon Halbesleben  15:20

Yeah, I don’t want to make it sound like anything we want to do, we’re able to do. We certainly hit those barriers as well. And I think that’s probably pretty common in many University settings. The way things have been done is deeply ingrained in a lot of folks. And even the idea that an online education could be even better or higher quality is a challenge of some folks’ assumptions. The analogy I like to make is, you know, the folks think about this as something that evolved out of correspondence courses, we just read something and then like take a scantron type test and then send it in – like this kind of thing. Things have evolved so much further than that now and online courses can be so much more immersive. But there’s still some of that mentality there. Even today I was I had a meeting a little bit earlier this morning with with some faculty members where we’re talking about developing a program and “when will you come record our lectures?” And I don’t, I don’t want to record your lectures, man. I don’t want a grainy video of you standing in front of a class writing things on the board that we can’t read. You know, we can do much, much better than that.

Rudy Fernandez  16:28

When I was in college, one of my work-study jobs early on was to videotape nuclear science classes. And it was a professor at the chalkboard writing, and often it was a professor writing with one hand while he eracing with the other.

Workplace Contentment Trends

I’d like to switch gears to your area of study. So you’ve done research for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the CDC department of defense that focuses Employee well-being, work family issues and relationships in and out of the workplace. What are some common trends affecting people’s contentment with work in their lives?

Jonathon Halbesleben  17:11

Yeah, they’re a couple of different, really, almost universal types of factors. A big piece of it is the dynamics that we have between the resources, we have to do our work, and then the demands that are placed on us. And it’s not even necessarily a great thing to have an unlimited number of resources and very few demands. That that actually makes for incredibly boring and unfulfilling work. But that intricate interplay between what’s being asked of us in the resources we have, whether it’s the time to do it, the financial resources, the other support, we might need to get the job done. That interplay is what we find is really important, but layered on top of that, also, as people want to feel like they’re doing something that’s meaningful. And so if you’ve got meaningful work that you feel makes a difference, and it doesn’t have to be like life changing. As long as you feel like it is contributing to something, yeah. Then day to day having the demands and resources that interplay working while knowing that it fluctuates, right? I mean, it’s there are times where they’re more demands and may not even have quite the resources you need. But over time, if it kind of works itself out, people tend to be much more productive, and can continue to kind of sustain high levels of productivity.

Rudy Fernandez  18:28

I’ve read, I think, is a Gallup poll they do every year. I think they it’s like 40,000 people they survey and overwhelmingly, job satisfaction is do I know my company’s values? And does it tie into mine above pay above benefits? That seems to be the most important attribute a company can have, or in this case, the university and also a big movement towards purpose. Do you think it’s more important to younger audiences or it’s pretty even?

Jonathon Halbesleben  19:00

It does appear, there’s this seem to be some work that suggests that it’s more important to some of the younger generations or the generations that are now entering the workforce. The days of just working in your sort of boring job pushing paper, or at least I get a paycheck, and I can keep food on the table for my family, whether you call it millennials or Gen Z, whichever group you’re talking about, it seems like it’s increasingly important. It’s not always clear why necessarily, it’s important. I think part of it is some of these groups having grown up, as we were mentioning earlier, growing up through the recession and seeing people get laid off, even though they were, maybe a great performer at work, and feeling like there’s the sort of disposable. You know, seeing your parents go through that kind of thing. You start to think you know, what, I want to make sure if I don’t have much control over my job status, I better be doing something at least I feel like is meaningful and makes a difference.

Work/Life Balance

Rudy Fernandez  19:54

I wanted to ask you about work/life balance cause I know you’ve written about that. I have a lot of questions about work/life balance. The first one that comes to mind is, I don’t believe such a thing exists in our country. I was thinking about the phrase, for example, quality family time. You know, I want quality family time. That, to me, in and of itself suggests that you are trying to optimize the time with your family, which is a work mentality type thing. Or I was talking to someone who’s planning a vacation and wanted to make sure it was all buttoned up, because there’s only two weeks and they want to get the most out of their vacation. And it to me, that’s just like taking work and projecting it onto other things. Yeah. Is there hope for us, I guess, is the question? Is there a way? Is there an alternative to that sort of mentality? How do we adjust to that?

Jonathon Halbesleben  20:44

Yeah, I think, I think a starting point is to quit using the term “work/life balance”. I also I don’t actually care for that term. And I think I use it like in my bio, just to describe what I study in part because people sort of understand what that means. Balance implies that there’s some point at which everything is right. Anything that deviates from that – you’re out of balance. And that’s, you know, a bad state to be in. Really what we should be looking at are things like work family interference, or work life interference, and work life facilitation. And also understanding that that can vary dramatically from person to person. If folks were to think a little bit more about their relationships with these different entities, so your relationship with your work, your relationship with the rest of your life or with your family, and developing strong relationships individually, with all those things, understanding that they’re all related, and you know, there’s some interplay there, it becomes a much better situation to be in. Sometimes we’ll hear some of these stories about I think, I’m gonna say it’s in France, where you’re not allowed to respond to phone calls or emails outside of work. Well, that’s not necessarily the solution for a lot of folks either. And it could be quite stressful and there have been plenty of times where if I just responded to an email at night, it would take me two seconds to get that done. And then I’m not having to deal with the far greater situation that has developed by the time the next morning rolls around. And so understand that what we’re really trying to do is find that place where we have a strong relationship with our work, a meaningful relationship with our work, but also can have a meaningful relationship with our kids or with our spouse or a partner or you know, whatever elements of your life, your hobbies, those types of things. That’s really what you want to be seeking out. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to happen, like completely exclusive of the other things.

Rudy Fernandez  22:44

Is that what you meant, because I was going to ask you: work life interference, and what was the other term?

Jonathon Halbesleben  22:48

About facilitation? Yes, work life facilitation is when your work and your life actually make each other better. Oh, and there are plenty of ways where that can happen and I know that there are times where problem solving skills I’ve learned working with my children have applied at work and vice versa. You know, I mean, not like a treat all people like kids here, but so it’s that idea that some of the skills or some of the energy, even that we get from one area can help make other areas of our life even better. That’s something we would want to really shoot for is that facilitation type of function.


You’re always hearing about: Americans work too much, and people aren’t happy. And then I also I sent you a story about some Swedish workers who feel burned out despite the fact that they have a lot of time off to themselves. How do you explain that? They have this, what we would consider an ideal situation where they don’t have to work as much and neither one of us are content, apparently.

Jonathon Halbesleben  23:48

Yeah, yeah. Well, and you know, another sort of parallel issue with this is that there are a large percentage of folks that struggle in retirement because they’re just used to doing what they were doing. And they felt, often they felt like what they were doing was important and meaningful. And it was a part of their identity and part of their life. I think what what’s happening here with the kind of the contrast in terms of United States versus Sweden in this particular case is: we’re assuming that there is a one size fits all solution with regard to how much work people do and how much work they’re not doing, or how much time they’re spending with family. I mean, let’s face it, there are times particularly think about my extended family where it’s really stressful to spend time with them. Anything I could do to get back to work, I’d like to do that. If you don’t have a strong relationship with your family, you’re going to start leaning more toward that strong relationship with work. Yeah. It’s more of the comfort zone perhaps. Or it could be vice versa, where you’ve got a strong relationship with your family. And that’s why it’s so frustrating that you’re working so much and you’re not able to spend the time you’d like to spend with them. I think it’s just been that assumption that it’s kind of one size fits all. And again, that’s a balance.

Rudy Fernandez  25:05

Now, that’s a good point. So what can employers do? I mean, obviously, we can’t tell people how to live their lives outside of work. What can employers do to help people find this sort of interaction with work and in private life?

Jonathon Halbesleben  25:21

Yeah, I think the best thing that employers can do is understand that they’re going to have to do a whole bunch of different things that are going to appeal to a whole bunch of different people. Something that I’ve seen, were really great ideas. But they sort of missed the mark, you know, maybe an example saying, “well, we want to help people spend time with their family.” Let’s give them that opportunity by having an event in the evening. A family event, right? And I’m thinking as a Dad with three kids… I mean, I have to run to a doctor’s appointment and then the golf lessons and all these other things. Like just today? I don’t need another event where I’m spending time with my family among my coworkers. But that might work really well, for some other folks, everybody’s going to be a little bit different. Some people, for example, like a flexible work arrangement, a day a teleworking one day at home, might be a terrific opportunity for them to build up relationships with their family, or help with some of those these things outside of life. But that may not be a great option for a lot of other people where they know they’re not going to get anything done, and they work from home and they’re going to be less productive. And in the end, it’s going to be problematic. So just understanding that there’s a lot of different angles that one can take and listening to your employees about what they need.

Trends in Lifelong Learning

Rudy Fernandez  26:43

In terms of universities, what do you see happening in the next few years that excites you the most and concerns you the most?

Jonathon Halbesleben  26:51

The thing I think that excites me the most is we’ve made a real effort to try to pivot our thinking toward lifelong learning. If I could change the name of our college today, I would change it to the College of Lifelong Learning, instead of Continuing Studies because that places the emphasis on you know, sort of the later stage career stuff. What’s exciting to me is knowing that right now we serve people as young as 7th grade with online courses. And that we continue to serve them through high school, through college, through their career and all kinds of different ways. And you know, even further degrees, all the way up to our programs for mature adults that aren’t necessarily online. But even there, we’re starting to move some of that online so that people are homebound. They can still be involved in some of our programming there. That’s really exciting knowing that we could be there for people the whole way. And then hopefully, we can also expand access to people who need what we have to offer.

Rudy Fernandez  27:48

I love that positioning, by the way.

Jonathon Halbesleben  27:50

Thank you. Well, obviously we have some work to do to fill in all those gaps and make sure it’s a real seamless experience for people along the way. Which leads to the concern. I think that maybe the biggest concern is just dealing with the challenges of filling in all those gaps. So it does feel seamless to people breaking down some of the barriers with regard to people’s thinking about the quality of online education and what that means. Even things like, I worry as we try to expand access in some of the rural parts of our state and other parts of our country, we’ve got some real problems with access to broadband internet. Where we might have really amazing content that’s actually too amazing. It’s too high quality. Yeah, for example, we’ve got these amazing studios and we do 4k quality video recordings. That’s a real problem if you’re effectively still on dial up internet. Some of our communities are. Those things concern me that are moved to try to serve people across that lifespan could be derailed by infrastructure, challenges, biases, these types of things that keep us from really being able to do it.

Rudy Fernandez  28:57

I mentioned another barrier is people’s perception of university, of what a university is. Because you know, it’s the place you go after high school to get a degree, whereas lifelong learning is it is a different way of looking at a university. That is not ubiquitous yet.

Jonathon Halbesleben  29:16

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a good point. And people, in fact, when I tell them about our college, they’re often surprised by what we do. Because so little that seems like something a university should be doing or would be doing. I agree. That’s still a barrier as well. Like wait a minute, why? Why is that a University of Alabama thing? To be providing high school courses…

Rudy Fernandez  29:36

But what a wonderful challenge for universities to start repositioning themselves. Yeah, as a place for lifelong learning. That’s great. Jonathon, thank you so much for your time. I’ve had a great time.

Jonathon Halbesleben  29:47

Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

Rudy Fernandez  29:51

Hey, thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. To learn more about the College of Continuing Studies at the University of Alabama and the many, many programs they offer, visit Bamabydistance.ua.edu. For show notes, previous episodes and previews to upcoming episodes, visit CreativeOuthouse.com/podcast. And if you liked this podcast, give us five stars, subscribe and share it with friends. Our Producer is Susan Cooper. Special thanks to Gopal Swamy and Acoustech Music for creating our Earcon, and to Jason Shablik for his audio advice. Well, that’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. And remember if the current state of marketing has got you confused, don’t worry. It will all change. See ya.

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