Continuing Education as a Strategic Asset
University extension, continuing education, professional studies. The names and functions for this academic area are as distinct and unique as the colleges and universities where they operate. Some universities have offered professional and continuing education for more than a century as an effort to serve their communities, support their alumni, or to fulfill public mandates and institutional missions. Others, perhaps more recently, have started professional and continuing education units in order to create surplus revenues to contribute to the overall benefit of the institution.
Institutions of higher education seeking to compete in the 21st century will need to reimagine their professional and continuing education units as something more than just an extension of the university, an outreach effort, or revenue stream. They need to leverage these assets more broadly to create strategic advantages for the entire university.
In recent years professional and continuing education units at universities have developed and refined numerous higher education strategies, services and approaches. They have learned how to attract and serve non-traditional students—and in the 21st century most learners now fit the non-traditional profile.
Continuing education units have developed systems to offer and support schedule flexibility—evening, weekend and accelerated options are now expected by working professional students.
Many universities have discovered that their professional and continuing education units possess the deepest expertise for developing and delivering successful online and hybrid programs.
Competency-based programs, credit for prior learning, and many other progressive achievements in higher education began with professional and continuing education innovations.
Successful universities will engage the serious challenges facing higher education—unsustainable tuition fees, increasing competition, demographic shifts, declining enrollments, increasing employer expectations of graduates, etc.—and deploy the expertise and assets of professional and continuing education as part of their solution.
A quick review of degrees offered and awarded by colleges and universities shows that some schools have already adapted the professional and continuing education skill set for new degree development. These schools have experienced success because they have created degree programs that attract large audiences and deliver earning power for their graduates.
Schools that have already adopted the expertise and experience of their professional and continuing education units approach degree program development and delivery differently than those schools that have not. Some of them have explicitly given the task of degree innovation, professional degrees, and online programs to their continuing education units.
Successful creation and growth of professional degree programs in these schools is marked by rigorous audience research, comprehensive competitive research, interviews and dialogue with professionals in the field and future employers. These schools also spend time understanding the prospective students’ opinions and preferences for schedule, location and learning modality. Providing the support services required for working adult students is something that professional and continuing education units understand and do. Another distinguishing factor: Their development timelines for launching these programs tend to be measured in months and not years.
Strategic assets produce many benefits. When professional and continuing education units deliver results—high-quality learning outcomes, predictable enrollments, budget surpluses, employed graduates and industry partnerships—their institutions will place greater strategic emphasis on their proven methods and expertise.
When recognized and deployed by an institution, the expertise and experience of professional and continuing education can produce significant positive results on a school’s ability to compete and succeed in the face of upcoming challenges. New degree programs, higher levels of community engagement, and new opportunities for students to experience life-changing learning and career growth are the results that make this strategic shift so important and worthwhile.
Author Perspective: Administrator