Published on 2013/04/30
Organizational Autonomy and the Continuing Education Unit
With some autonomy in its operations, Continuing Education units could have the capacity to better respond to market needs and operate as a business.

With many higher education institutions becoming increasingly dependent on continuing education (CE) units to generate revenue and to fund overall institutional operations, strategic organizational options must be considered.

This begs the question of whether continuing education should gain autonomy from the rest of the campus or remain a part of the traditional infrastructure. Will the institution be better served by a CE unit that functions independently as the entrepreneurial arm of the university? Will an autonomous campus unit that is particularly attuned to market forces and niche markets serve the institution’s overall mission?

Many see the ground shifting in fundamental ways and recognize the current crisis in higher education as real; a new competitive environment where honoring tradition for the sake of tradition and hanging onto past practices could imperil the institution’s future. Hence, the argument that a CE unit functioning outside of the traditional campus mainstream would ultimately create internal competition and detract from the overall quality of the institution is increasingly being seen as specious.

Several reasons suggest an autonomous CE unit functioning outside of the restrictions governing the core institution would benefit it overall.

1. Greater Agility

With more control over its review and internal governance approval processes, an autonomous CE unit would have a greater ability to accelerate to-the-market offerings and respond to new market demands with more agility than units governed under the restrictions of the core institution. Savvy business decisions must be made rapidly in highly volatile markets and the glacial time frames — emblematic of highly bureaucratic institutions — constrain that capacity.

2. Market Responsiveness

The autonomous CE unit would likely have greater flexibility to expand its strategic programming choices and the authority to eliminate, in a timely manner, entrenched programs that no longer have a market demand. The competitive edge so necessary in today’s higher education environment and the resource efficiency that might not otherwise exist within the traditional campus will continue to be critical if institutions are to remain viable. At the same time, being able to use the CE unit to establish niche market programs and serve as an incubator for high-risk, high-potential, market-driven programs would strategically position the institution without draining resources from mainstream campus operations.

3. Profitability

As an autonomous unit with a business model functioning outside of the core campus infrastructure, initiatives such s differential pricing — adjusted to the laws of supply and demand — and a responsibility center management (RCM) governing approach are all possible. A differential pricing model serves to align revenue with expenses. It can be a way to fund additional offerings that would not otherwise be provided, and can move the institution up the supply curve of courses where demand exceeds supply. RCM allocates revenues to areas experiencing growth and encourages entrepreneurial activities, e.g. new programs and services, and enables the institution to build on its successes by making it easier to invest in academic programs and services.

As an essential revenue center, an important source of funding for institutional initiatives and as a fulcrum for innovation, investment and growth, an autonomous CE unit may break with tradition. However, the forward-looking institution might see this as building on what CE units do best: helping the institution adapt to the converging forces driving change in higher education.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2013/04/30 at 8:45 am

DiSalvio does a good job of highlighting opportunities for collaboration between a CE unit and the rest of campus. I appreciate his description of the CE unit as an “incubator” for new programs and even business processes. There are a lot of lessons that could come out of a CE unit’s operations, but the challenge is to make sure they’re shared with, and applied to, the rest of campus.

Kristine Harris 2013/04/30 at 10:39 am

DiSalvio makes it seem like the traditional campus is stuffy, unimaginative and ineffective while the continuing education unit is the only part of campus that is exciting and ahead of the curve. I think he is unfairly maligning the more traditional units of an institution. You have to look at the make-up of students for each type of programming. Students enrolled in the traditional campus would want the so-called ‘boring,’ but tried and true, programs to build up their knowledge bases. In contrast, continuing education students likely have previous training, and would be looking more for supplementary training opportunities. Each unit operates the way it needs to in order to meet the needs of its students.

    Natasha Rubin 2013/04/30 at 4:31 pm

    I disagree completely. This article does a good job of providing a rather balanced look at continuing education units. I don’t think DiSalvio is saying that CE units are immune to failure, but he correctly points out that they are operated in such a way that they’re more flexible and more able to adapt to market fluctuations, thus making them more sustainable. I think other units on campus could learn from that.

AL Powell 2013/05/06 at 4:29 pm

There are good ideas in the article, but I don’t want my continuing ed unit functioning separately from campus in any academic sense. As soon as that happens, you become a second class unit with second class degrees. Not good.

What does matter is keeping the revenue flow from CE out of the institutions’ “black box”. CE should receive all the revenues it generates and distribute them to the institution according to agreed-upon plans. The institution should NOT keep the money and make CE beg for funds. If CE can manage their own money and be entrepreneurial, they’re much better off.

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