Published on 2014/01/15

Outsourcing Continuing Education: Issues for the Institution

Outsourcing Continuing Education: Issues for the Institution
The commonly outsourced academic and administrative services change from institution to institution, but there are a few periphery tasks for which most colleges and universities look for partners.
About ten years ago, I was approached by the owner of a local technical training company asking to have our university program outsource all our continuing education classes to his business. In return, our institution would receive ten percent of all revenue; akin to being a part owner. Our role as an institution was to provide our logo and our brand identity, collect the profits, and nothing more.

Though we declined his request, it did set the wheels in motion for outsourcing some parts of our program, including marketing development, website design but not management and some courseware development.

The decision to outsource part of your continuing education program is one that should not be taken lightly, and all the aspects — and pitfalls — should be explored. Also keep in mind the end goal of your program; to offer education to your community as an extension of your institution. Starting with the end in mind should help keep you on track for successful partnerships.

The areas to keep in-house or outsource come up for discussion in management meetings every few years. Here are some of the areas that are discussed most often, and the rationalization for keeping those areas in-house or outsourcing them (as the case may be). The list starts with areas I believe should be kept in-house and works towards areas that I think can be logically outsourced:

Academic Classes and Programs

At the core of a continuing education department are the programs offered; the “product” for our “customers” in business-speak. Outsourcing your key product is risky idea. Keep it in-house.

Registration, Advising and Customer Service

The service you provide your customers is a key aspect of your brand identity. This identity is itself a key aspect of why students choose your institution over other online or local options.

Keeping your levels of service and institutional knowledge with advising in-house is a good idea. In some cases, having in-house advising can help steer students to other institutional resources; something an outsourced provider might not know to do.


The face in front of the classroom — or on the screen if online (see below) — is part of your product. Using traditional university faculty, dedicated continuing education instructors, adjunct continuing education instructors or outsourced instructors from training brokers are the typical solutions.

Most programs use a mix of all four solutions. Your institution’s customs and policies, along with community resources and needs, often dictate the degree to which faculty services are outsourced.

Courseware Development and Books

Developing the right courses for your community is a core aspect of your job as a continuing education leader. Writing the textbooks or course materials is not. That is something best left to the experts in the field.

Sometimes the best option is a commercial or academic textbook. Sometimes your program of study will have to match national standards for certifications or licensure. Sometimes, of course, a localized need is being met and having your instructor write a guide is the best solution. Each program of study is different; adjust accordingly.


Institutions vary widely on marketing; some outsource all while others outsource nothing. A happy medium I’ve found is keeping the development and maintenance of marketing resources in-house, while using consultants for certain campaign elements and media buys.

The overall message of your marketing should align with your institutional message, and an outsourced provider isn’t as connected to the institution as a continuing education leader.

Website and Social Media

The website design and content flow is often better left to the experts and should be refreshed every 18 months to three years. Day-to-day updates, though, can be done in-house.

Social media campaigns and account development can be outsourced, while the day-to-day execution of updating social media should be done in-house.

For both the website and social media, be sure to keep the message on target with your overall marketing plan.

Online Education

Given the constant change in this arena, continuing education units commonly outsource their online education to a third party, often for a cut of registration fees. Face-to-face programming, of course, remains the purview of the institution.

Proposals that have come across my desk over the years have ranged from 10-40 percent of the total revenue cut to be returned to the host institution, with full university branding being used on the outsourced provider’s website.

Some proposals provide nothing more than a URL and account creation for your students, while others include marketing support, customer service, tutoring and related services. I expect this area to change, but keep in mind the “Academic Classes and Programs” area above when outsourcing your educational offerings.

Online Registration

Separate from customer service is online registration. Building an online registration system that is secure, robust and fully functional is something vendors in the continuing education space have already done.

Don’t waste your precious staff time reinventing something that is already available. Plus the credit card and security challenges are nearly a full time job to keep up with. Pay the small fee and outsource this, as long as it adheres to any privacy policies your institution might have in place.

Bookkeeping and Financials

Some institutions have centralized finance and accounting, and all programs must use the central office for policy or legal reasons. If this is not the case at your institution, though, having an expert in the field handle your bookkeeping and tax issues allows you to focus on your continuing education program and community.

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Readers Comments

Simon Pickering 2014/01/15 at 6:10 am

One area DeLalla didn’t touch on is information security, although he makes reference to it in the ‘Online Registration’ section. I believe security challenges exist beyond simply registration, but in other student data and systems operations overall. I doubt many institutions have in-house experts in this area. Wondering if anyone has experiences dealing with a vendor for information security/system security and could describe what the process of signing them on was like.

    John DeLalla 2014/01/15 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks for your comment – and I too would be interested in hearing stories about how outsourced IA worked for an institution. Please do share if you’ve been through this process. 🙂

Oliver Wayne 2014/01/15 at 11:52 am

I know of some institutions that have entered into partnerships such as the one DeLalla describes at the beginning of his piece, where a third party operates the program and the institution merely attaches its brand identity to it. To me, this is rather disingenuous. Institutions with highly visible brands would, according to the laws of commerce, charge more for their programming. Students are, in a sense, paying a premium to take a course or credential at a well-recognized institution. I do not believe these same students would be quite as willing to pay a premium for an education delivered by a third party. However, it’s not always made clear to the student at enrollment which party will actually be doing the curriculum development and/or teaching.

    John DeLalla 2014/01/15 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for your comment – and you’re right: not making clear which organization is providing the actual education can be a pitfall of outsourcing. Ever show up at an Amtrak station for a train ride, only to find a bus in place of the train?
    Don’t ‘bait and switch’ your students – if you outsource part of your offerings – explain that up front.

    Rob Young 2014/01/15 at 10:22 pm

    I disagree. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement that using a third party to deliver CE courses is necessarily a bad thing. In some ways, the third-party vendor would function much like a sessional instructor, who’s taken on to deliver a specific course or program in accordance with the institution’s objectives. I do think institutions have to be careful about which programs or courses they want to partner with an external provider on, and which provider to choose. As long as the provider’s expertise and business practices are in line with the institution’s mission, I don’t see a problem with using one.

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Roxel Gestiada 2014/10/01 at 8:05 pm

I understand that need to keep your key product in-house due to the need to protect your brand (on a marketing perspective). However, outsourcing some of your programs is, somehow, defeating the purpose not putting the name of your institution at risk. Don’t get me wrong, I am also in favor of the concept of outsourcing. I just believe that it will be depending on the type of business to be outsourced.

Skeptical 2014/12/09 at 12:58 pm

This is just another example of schools thinking with only the bottom line in mind. What about all of the lost jobs for faculty now that outsourced solutions are being used in many instances, especially for CE divisions? Schools should deliver the highest quality instructors possible, and I don’t believe that these instructors from ‘training brokers’ as DeLalla calls them, can match this quality.

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