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Collaboration is Key to Supporting the Evolving Role of Continuing Education Divisions

The EvoLLLution | Collaboration is Key to Supporting the Evolving Role of Continuing Education Divisions
Professional and continuing education units are the key drivers of institutional access to programming for students of all ages. Supporting their success requires a collaborative mindset.

Working across departments and campuses can be critical to the success of continuing education units and, more generally, institutions of higher education. Today’s higher education environment is much more competitive and requires new ideas and ways of working in order for institutions to remain relevant and responsive to change.

Higher education is facing challenges that include financial volatility, rising global and international partnerships, pressure around retention and completion, the need for new business models, opportunities for innovation with technology, new types of offerings, and changing demographics.1

Competition in higher education today includes many non-traditional ways for students to take classes and obtain degrees, such as free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), credit-bearing low-cost degrees offered by MOOC providers, coding boot camps, and stackable certificates. In addition to these innovations, many programs are offered entirely online. Rather than competing with a few local schools, institutions must now compete on a global scale. Universities must not only attract students; they must also be able to differentiate themselves from the large pool of competitors in order to gain enrollments.

How do continuing education leaders work with their colleagues across the main campus to broaden access to programming that is typically restricted to traditional students pursuing full-time degrees?

As the Executive Director of the Extended Campus at the University of Northern Colorado, it is my responsibility to collaborate with academic affairs leaders to identify, create, deliver and evaluate programs and professional development offerings that extend our reach beyond the main campus. In this role, it is critical for me to work closely with partners on campus to maintain the brand and mission of the university while opening new markets.

The university’s mission is to support equal learning opportunities for all students in an environment characterized by small classes taught by full-time faculty. UNC faculty subscribe to a teacher/scholar model in which excellence in instruction is paired with activities in scholarship and service. The Extended Campus helps colleges reach new students, or in some cases retain existing students who prefer to attend programs closer to work or home and would otherwise choose another educational provider if they did not have access to our programs.

In addition to extending the reach of the university, we serve high school students in dual enrollment programs, traditional undergraduates in self-supporting, faculty-led study abroad programs, and traditional and non-traditional undergraduates through Independent Studies. We also provide education for practicing professionals and those seeking professional development in a non-credit format, such as Executive Education. Today’s students increasingly see education as a lifelong path rather than a one-time investment.

Recent market research has shown that, in the near future, four generations of students will be in our cohorts together:

  • Baby Boomers: 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X: 1965 to 1979
  • Millennials/Generation Y: 1980 to 1996
  • Generation Z: 1996 to Present

Marketing to each generation may take place on the same platforms, but the messaging must be different. Survey data, focus groups and direct feedback from students in University of Northern Colorado Extended Campus programs shows the most important factors in selecting a program are, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Cost
  2. Online offerings
  3. Reputation/University ranking
  4. Availability of financial aid
  5. Flexible class meeting times
  6. Accreditation of school/program
  7. Convenient location to attend in person if needed
  8. Faculty are good teachers and mentors
  9. Specializations or tracks of study offered
  10. Length of time to complete
  11. Job placement data of graduates
  12. Ability to transfer in credits
  13. Credit for prior work or life experience
  14. Personal attention from faculty
  15. Internships that provide academic credit

A continuing education unit—or an extended campus or professional school—is often most suited to meet these needs. Non-traditional students, adults and even today’s traditional students see themselves as customers. They have high expectations for the service they receive before, during and after enrollment. These “search and shop”2 students are comfortable finding and comparing educational options. They are willing to look for programs that match their educational and career advancement objectives. In fact, today’s students have the same service expectations when selecting a higher education institution as they do when making any other major purchase. Service expectations go far beyond enrollment and have an acute impact on retention, especially when it comes to non-traditional students.

At the University of Northern Colorado Extended Campus, programs feature flexible delivery, practical experience, an accelerated format and interdisciplinary pathways, all of which increase the value of earning a degree. Many continuing education students are able to advance their education or add needed skills while they work part- or full-time.

Higher education leaders increasingly see collaboration between traditional academic units and continuing education units as a strategic opportunity. Collaboration maximizes resources, reduces course redundancy, streamlines the program approval process, and reduces tension caused by competition and lack of transparency.

Maintaining the right program inventory is important for every higher education institution. Proper management of an institution’s programs prevents cannibalization between units and decreases unhealthy competition. Cannibalization is unhealthy when enrollments are largely transfers from traditional programs to faster, more flexible and more affordable CE programs that better suit their needs.

Rules regarding hiring and compensation vary in continuing education units. Many CE units employ more adjunct instructors than traditional units, or hire professionals in their discipline with academic training to teach classes. CE instructors do not have advising, service and research responsibilities in addition to their teaching load. Faculty in traditional units often receive additional compensation to teach in CE units and many find it desirable. Finding a good balance between full-time faculty and non-tenured instructors is an important aspect of the partnership between traditional units and CE units.

University leadership is increasingly looking to professional and continuing education units as an agile and creative means to expand and adapt to new threats and opportunities. “Those who unleash these units to respond to the needs of emerging generations of students will be able to survive and even thrive in this changing environment.”3

1 Adrianna Kezar and Elizabeth Holcombe. Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice. (American Council on Education, 2017).

2 Reaching Search and Shop Students: Breakthrough Practices for Creating Differentiated Value for Prospects and Building Lifelong Learner Relationships (EAB, 2013).

3 James Fong, Jay Halfond and Ray Schroeder. The Changing Landscape for Professional and Continuing Education in the U.S. (UPCEA, 2017).

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