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Surveying the CE Landscape: Opportunities and Challenges for Continuing Education

The EvoLLLution | Surveying the CE Landscape: Opportunities and Challenges for Continuing Education
Continuing education units are uniquely placed to help drive their universities forward, but they must contend with a great deal more competition in their main markets at the same time.

The higher education space is transforming and, though continuing education divisions once quietly sat at the periphery of the institution, they’re now being thrust front-and-center as their key competencies are necessary for the long-term survival of the institution. In this interview, Michael Horn reflects on a few of the key challenges and opportunities CE divisions are navigating, and shares his thoughts on the role these units need to play in supporting the long-term viability and success of their institutions.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you and your colleagues decide it was important to investigate the trends impacting continuing education?

Michael Horn (MH): More adults right now are enrolling in postsecondary programs than ever before. We know that’s true and we also know that number is going to continue to increase, so there’s a lot of activity in the continuing education space.

We also know a lot of those adults aren’t enrolling in traditional colleges or universities. Instead, they may be enrolling in bootcamps or online course providers or mobile course providers. As such, the space of continuing education within universities is really important because this is a growing demographic but, equally so, there are competitors coming in that they have to contend with who are figuring out and leveraging new technologies to create new learning models that, in many cases, better fit the needs of these adults.

Shining the lens on what continuing education programs should do about this, to reclaim their leadership and their historical legacy of being the place for workforce and societal shaping of adults, is really important.

There’s one other piece of this that is no secret, which is that the business models of a lot of colleges and universities are broken. Continuing education can be an innovation hub for these universities to create new programs, transform pedagogy not just within their own right but across the university as well, to really bring in new revenue and to help the overall university restore its health.

Evo: How are the challenges facing CE mirrored in what’s happening across the rest of the main campus?

MH: Every part of the campus is facing competition that it didn’t before. Every part of the campus is facing pressure to innovate with new technologies and new tools. Every part of the campus is also realizing that traditional models and traditional price points that continue to escalate may not be the wave of the future. So, in those areas, there’s a big mirroring.

What I think is different about continuing education programs relative to the rest of the university—what also made them so interesting—is that they’re much more autonomous from the traditional university. They often have their own faculty, they operate under a very different set of regulatory constraints and political considerations, and they have more of a start-up, can-do spirit compared to more traditional programs. There’s a real sense that you can innovate in CE because we know, from studies of disruptive innovation, that having autonomy is a really important ingredient to launch your own disruptions. A lot of senior institutional leaders struggle to understand where or how they can innovate, but, if they have a continuing education program or extension school, they may already have that engine within their midst.

Evo: What are some of the key challenges facing continuing education leaders?

MH: The challenges for continuing education leaders are also opportunities.

A big one is the growth of on-demand learning programs. This doesn’t just refer to multiple start dates. This means students can literally start right now, this minute; they can enroll whenever they wish and get started within a couple of minutes. MOOCs have fundamentally changed that game and we’re starting to see continuing education providers respond to this trend with their own options.

Creative financing options—leveraging employer reimbursement programs and state dollars in different ways—are also really important.

Competency based education is obviously a huge one for continuing education. After all, doing this well means institutions will need to innovate to stay up with the workforce needs.

Credentialing is a big area where, in many ways, we need a new archetype or language to certify peoples’ knowledge and skills and, in continuing education, that’s a huge challenge but a huge opportunity as well.

The last one I’ll say is that, increasingly, schools are partnering with employers directly to narrow that education-to-employment gap. A big challenge for continuing education divisions, who have a legacy of working with employers, is leveraging those partnerships in even tighter ways. However, this also presents a significant opportunity.

Evo: Do these challenges and opportunities uniquely speak to continuing education, or are they similar to the elements facing professional schools on campus (like business schools or medical schools), or the main undergraduate campus in general?

MH: There’s definitely some overlap in the sense that a business school and medical school—though less so an undergraduate campus—are facing these considerations and challenges. What I think is distinct about continuing education, though, is the explicit mission around serving adult learners and preparing students for the workforce, which puts even greater pressure on them.

In addition, we found that continuing education programs actually support transformation efforts throughout and across the university. For example, say a continuing education program innovates and creates a new hybrid model for a particular program, using very different pedagogy in the online format—it’s not just recorded video but a different way of using multimedia to help students learn. CE can then take that concept and become the training ground to help the business school offer a similarly designed program. CE doesn’t have to be an entrepreneurial island that can innovate aggressively, but they can actually also take what they learn and train the rest of your faculties to support transformation initiatives throughout the university.

This way, CE becomes both a new revenue center in itself and also a training ground for everyone else. I think it’s a dual benefit and quite frankly, other schools struggle to do that given how their missions are framed to be much more external facing rather than a team that can support internal transformation efforts.

Evo: How do you expect to see the continuing education space grow over the coming decade?

MH: Over the next decade, you’re going to see a plurality of programs but I also think you’re going to see universities running even greater numbers of different types of programs to match different types of circumstances and workforce needs. I also think you’ll see, in some cases, continuing education programs subsume some of the programs out of the business schools or out of the medical schools and actually bring them in-house.

You’re also going to see that there will be a handful of schools that are the leaders in the continuing education within their regions, while other continuing education divisions that failed to adapt or innovate will fade away or become less prominent. Ultimately, they may even have to close their doors as the market gets dominated by some of these other continuing education schools that really do lead the way. There is a volume play here, and if you don’t get on top of it you’re going to be left behind. CE leaders either need to carve out your niche so clearly that the market and students understand it, or aggressively innovate such that you can capture the lion’s share of students and employers. What’s more, without great career services programs and great employer connections, you’re going to be left behind.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the evolving continuing education space and what it’s going to take for CE leaders to really stay on top and to stay differentiated?

MH: In this report we’ve come up with 10 high-level takeaway trends that we think are going to mark the innovators in the industry in the future. However, really, it’s critical for CE leaders to differentiate themselves and mark out what makes them special within their specific regions. Having a distinct strategy, as opposed to trying to do whatever everyone else does, is the key to distinguishing yourself. Working with external stakeholders—whether that’s employers in your region, innovators, tech providers—who help you shape a distinct program that’s unique for your circumstances and different from your competitors and what other regions are doing is really going to be the hallmark that distinguishes a continuing education program. That will be the difference between a CE unit that doesn’t just survive, but thrives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To read more of Michael Horn’s thoughts on trends in the continuing education space, please read 10 Trends Ahead for Continuing Education, co-written with Amber Laxton and Yury Lifshits, published by Entangled Solutions.

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