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Continuing Education’s Purpose in an Institution: Mission, Service, Community or Business?

Continuing Education’s Purpose in an Institution: Mission, Service, Community or Business?
While continuing education units serve a critical academic purpose, there are a number of reasons it is important for these divisions to operate in a more business-like manner than other units within a higher education institution.

Continuing Education (CE) units have historically played a significant role in meeting their institutions’ strategic goals. When developing their unit’s strategy, CE leaders must first consider how the unit will fit with the institution’s mission. Typically, this has meant that CE units have provided access to underserved populations, facilitated the economic progress of the communities they serve through workforce development programs and brought innovation to their campuses with creative endeavors and programming formats. In today’s higher education marketplace, online programming has come out of, or is housed within, the CE unit.

Even with those arguments, the CE unit that fits so well into the institution’s mission might risk its long-term survival if it cannot show positive financial results. The CE unit must have a business foundation and must show a financial impact that benefits the institution. Financial pressures require the CE unit to have leaders who know business practices and implement them throughout the CE operations. I would like to point out three of the most convincing reasons why the CE unit must run like a business:

1. Competitive Environment and Similarity to a For-Profit:

CE units often provide products that compete with products offered by for-profit organizations and trade associations (SHRM, AICPA, etc.), which are as close to being businesses as one can get in the higher education sector. As CE units, we provide professional development opportunities also offered online and across media by for-profit institutions and trade associations, which employ aggressive business and marketing tactics and have to show positive financial results year after year to their stakeholders. These groups discount prices, employ professional marketers and work in financial structures that are different than academic environments. The for-profits primarily provide the higher-margin academic programs (undergraduate and graduate degrees) typically geared to adult learners found in professional schools (business, education, health care and nursing, psychology, etc.) CE units are competitors for the for-profits as we, too, focus primarily on adult learners. CE units have been the first academic units of nonprofits or public institutions that have introduced online formats and have been competing head-to-head with these for-profits. We know we have enjoyed our institution’s brand and long history, but CE leadership must employ the business practices to supplement the brand edge over the for-profits. The well-known brand alone will not be enough in the long run.

2. Pressures from Faculty and University Governance:

CE units typically sit on the edge of academic units and are not staffed by the “tenured” faculty who play a very significant role in the “shared” governance in academia. In cases where the CE unit provides academic programs, faculty frequently question the contribution made by the unit, and strong financial returns could give CE leaders a greater voice at the table rather than only justifying their existence on the basis of institutional mission-related work. This is especially true in the current environment, where public and nonprofit institutions are facing greater financial scrutiny. The additional pressures come from business officers and boards of trustees, which, in the current environment, are giving more attention to utilization of financial resources than to fulfillment of the mission.

3. Programs Offered by the CE Unit to Corporations:

In some cases, CE units compete with in-house training offered by corporations or are supplementing what corporations provide. The CE leadership must show the impact of the offered training program in business terms and the outcomes must tie to the goals of the corporate stakeholders. The CE unit is therefore very much in a free market environment in which returns are measured.


In my view, today’s CE units must employ their resources well, be efficient, treat the prospective clients/students as customers and be more flexible in negotiating contracts than the other the academic units in order to be able to compete with for-profits. The CE units must indeed operate like a business, not forgetting they are simultaneously a part of nonprofit academic institutions. The inefficient CE unit that is slow to respond to the market and that does not have good marketing strategies must consider changes. CE units should regularly monitor their business practices and benchmark how they compare against other players in their environment. One of those changes could be to consider outsourcing some of the activities in the value-chain to a for-profit vendor, as some of us have been doing recently.

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