Published on 2017/08/01
The EvoLLLution | The Power of Continuing Education
Continuing education has evolved from its early days as personal enrichment, creating access to critical professional and workforce education programming that support students’ employability and drive economic growth and community health.

The data are clear:

  • The average American changes jobs every 4.4 years. (Bureau of Labor Statistics);
  • Within the next few years, 65 percent of all jobs will require at least some education beyond high school (Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce);
  • Certificates are the fastest growing form of postsecondary credentials in the nation (Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce);
  • 60 percent of all college students are over the age of 24 (U.S. Department of Education), most work at least part-time, have families, and live very differently from the images of college life portrayed in movies.

The nature of postsecondary learning is changing. Americans still want and value degrees, but the shifting nature of work and the demographics of those who go to college increasingly requires different modalities and new academic products to meet demands. Continuing and professional education units at many colleges and universities are well attuned to these changes and are both nimble enough and entrepreneurial enough to lead their institutions to address them. The following are a few examples.

A common criticism from students and employers is that the knowledge students gain in college is not relevant to work. Adult students especially want to learn how to apply new knowledge and skills so that they can use them to improve their professional prospects. One pedagogy that addresses this directly is competency-based education or CBE. In most competency-based programs, students focus on demonstrating mastery of their knowledge and skills through authentic assessments: tests that closely resemble the application of a particular knowledge set or skill in practice.

A number of universities across the country are developing CBE programs. An early adopter, University of Wisconsin-Extension created competency-based programs under the name Flexible Option. Programs in this format focus squarely on learning outcomes, and they allow students who have prior disciplinary knowledge to apply that knowledge to their studies to save time and money. Students demonstrate competence by passing authentic assessments. When they pass, they move through the program quickly until they get stuck. At that point, they focus on learning new information. Students can pursue competency-based degrees, but they can also focus on more targeted credentials, such as a certificate in project management or in substance use disorders. In some cases, they can apply or stack certificates to degrees.

The average age of students in Flexible Option programs is 34, and for most students who engage in the Flexible Option, it is the only opportunity they have to further their education. That increased level of access has made real impacts on students’ lives, which in turn has significant impacts on the communities in which they live. For example, many healthcare providers in Wisconsin and in other states are changing requirements for nurses and mandating registered nurses to finish bachelor’s degrees. Lori Kenyon, a registered nurse in Milwaukee who completed her bachelor’s degree through the Flexible Option said, “My goal was to finish a BSN degree in one year, and I did it! Thanks to the self-paced format, I was able to complete 36 credits while working full time as an ER nurse.” She would not have been able to do that in a traditional, semester-based program.

A different challenge faced by many research-intensive institutions is that the research focus can be isolating and separates the university from the community in which it operates. At the University of Washington, UCLA and Georgia Tech, however, continuing and professional education units serve as bridges between the interests of the university and the broad needs of the community. For example, according to UW Vice Provost Rovy Branon, “University of Washington Continuum College supports 104 professional degrees and over 100 certificates to meet employer demand in the Seattle region. To keep program content fresh and relevant, the college maintains more than 80 advisory boards comprised of faculty members and business leaders.”

Recently, UW Continuum College announced a new Career Accelerator initiative to add flexibility to its certificate programs and to help Seattle companies with globally distributed workforces meet their educational needs around the world. The university is impacting the economic health of the community through a certificate scholarship that enables eligible Washington residents to achieve in-demand professional certificates such as data analytics, data science, machine learning, project management and Python programming.

UCLA is similarly engaging with the broader Southern California region. Wayne Smutz, Dean of UCLA Extension, explains that, “health care is moving to a much more distributed model with less care occurring in hospitals. UCLA Medical is creating clinics all over Los Angeles. There are about 150 locations now and growing. These clinics need medical technicians to carry out some of the basic health care. However, UCLA Medical has had trouble finding qualified individuals for these roles. UCLA Extension is working with them to create a curriculum to fill the pipeline of qualified medical technicians.”

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Atlanta, the focus on supporting students, employers and communities through continuing and professional education resonates. As Nelson Baker, Dean of Professional Education at Georgia Tech, tells it, “The roles of continuing education units are changing with the increased realizations by various stakeholders for how universities can assist their regions in both workforce (talent development) and economic development.” Examples at Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) include working with companies to provide educational opportunities for their existing workforce. Those programs keep employees current in new knowledge for global competitiveness and give employees a perspective of corporate worth. GTPE also has been working with the State of Georgia Economic Development teams when companies want to move to the state. These opportunities involve showcasing existing efforts in education and training in certain job sectors and putting together programs as part of hiring incentive packages to help ensure that companies have the best talent possible.

Regional talent and economic development is critically important, and many continuing and professional education units are the direct links between university campuses and the regions they serve. In addition broader, national goals are being addressed through cross-institutional partnerships. For instance, the Lumina Foundation and others have noted that to remain globally competitive, the U.S. must increase the number of American workers with some college credential from about 45 percent today to 60 percent by 2025. To support this effort, the continuing education units at Georgia Tech, the University of Washington, University of Wisconsin-Extension, UCLA, UC-Irvine and UC-Davis collaborated to create the University Learning Store, a department store-like venue for university credentials from badges to degrees. Although the University Learning Store is only getting started, the goal is clear: combine the academic strength of several top, national universities into a one-stop shop where anyone anywhere in the world can go, learn, and earn credentials that meet their specific needs.

There was a time when continuing education was little more than personal enrichment. Those days are over. Continuing education has broadened into professional education, and for many institutions and the communities in which they operate, it has become a critical resource for talent development, economic growth and community health.

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