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The Organizational Structure of Professional and Continuing Education Units

The EvoLLLution | The Organizational Structure of Professional and Continuing Education Units
Without a clear alignment of goals, structure and strategy, growth-charged continuing education divisions will face significant problems in generating additional revenue and expanding the reach of the institution.
In the shifting, highly competitive landscape of higher education today, many institutions are turning to their Professional and Continuing Education (PCE) units to increase revenue, expand reach, and improve productivity. But they won’t succeed, and the culprit is organizational structure.

Beth Laves (Western Kentucky University) and I have been facilitating conversations at UPCEA conferences on this topic over the past year, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best not to think of organizational “models” in this context. That term implies discrete, intentional, deliberate decisions regarding how to structure a PCE unit, and that’s just not how it’s typically done. More often, the structure of the PCE unit is a function of some long-ago decision; an evolutionary process; or maybe a more recent leadership change, task force or strategic planning effort.

Complicating the situation is the fact PCE units evolve for a myriad of reasons including: as an opportunity for faculty to innovate; as an extension of the reach of the institution; to provide full employment for faculty whose campus programs are under-enrolled; to generate extra income opportunities for faculty; or to generate revenue to support campus operations, expansion, or other initiatives. And there are many more.

To better understand the relationship between these goals and the structure of the PCE unit, we can put the goals on a continuum. The first few from the list above are more about effort than income—indeed, in some instances revenue isn’t even considered. And the latter two goals are all about revenue. So let’s use level of revenue generation as our “goals” continuum.

Meanwhile, the location and operation of PCE units in an institution do have structure, even if they do not reflect a definitive model. I find it helpful to think about a continuum here too, and we can place a free-standing autonomous unit (complete with curricular authority) on one end of this continuum and at the other end an institution where each college, even department, offers its own distance education programming with no institutional role in the process. Using this framework, every institution that has an interest in PCE can be placed somewhere on this “structure” continuum.

It is at the intersection of our goals and structure continua that we find the reason why most PCE units that are charged with growth will fail.

You see, charged-with-growth PCE units will try all sorts of strategies and tactics. A great example is NYU Online–a brilliant attempt many years ago to move into the online space that famously failed. The challenge they faced is still present in many of our institutions today: a mismatch of goals and structure.

So let’s go back to the PCE unit that is now charged with covering a shortfall—generating real revenue when historically it functioned as an outreach support unit. This represents a shift from one end of our goals continuum to the other, and that requires a corresponding shift on our structure continuum, which is the step we frequently omit.

As we increase revenue expectations, we necessarily shift toward a more autonomous organizational structure for the PCE unit. It’s a perfect correlation, actually.

The reason for this is both logical and simple: as the size and complexity of a PCE unit grows the need for specialization—expert skill sets—increases. Recruiting a dozen students for a cohort can easily be done by one or two faculty members who are passionate about serving students, but recruiting a thousand or a few thousand students requires multiple skill sets in marketing alone.

Not sure you believe me? Take a look at Purdue University Global, Arizona State University Online, and the Penn State Global Campus. Those are just three examples of institutions that deliberately create and operate in the PCE space, to great advantage to their bottom line.

What they’re showing us is that to be successful producing significant growth, an institution needs first to work through its assumptions, clarifying and assuring buy-in to its goals. Only then should the institution seek to align the organizational structure to those goals.

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