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Four Steps to Align Continuing Education for Success (Part 1)

Four Steps to Align Continuing Education for Success
Running a successful continuing education unit requires a great deal of institutional support and common understandings of the unit’s goals and mission.
Among all of the units in higher education institutions, Continuing Education (CE) departments are among the most dynamic and flexible in terms of meeting business and community needs quickly. Most institutions’ degree programs follow a predictable pattern of enrollment seasons, well-defined semesters, repetitive schedules, regimented catalogs, and rhythmic reporting periods. However, those same institutions’ CE units are often called to chase clients’ demands, train people for an ever-changing economy, adjust to community expectations as they shift, and be ready to respond to anybody who has a training or educational need (even as it arises and at the moment they ask). We often give new degree programs years to plan, implement, develop and grow before we gauge their success or failure, but we often doom CE programs to failure if they don’t produce from quarter-to-quarter or even on the spot.

From inactivity to over-activity, most of us have seen what we deem unproductive CE units, and most of the ensuing frustration comes from an institutional misalignment of CE in terms of purpose, expectations, customer-base and the surrounding business environment.

1. Determine the Purpose of CE

CE units often have a purpose that is much broader than the mission of their parent college. CE units are expected to meet community and customer requests as they come up, and thus by default, CE units are expected to be all things to all people. This results is an all too familiar outcome—the CE unit often becomes “a mile wide and an inch deep” in terms of real productivity, economy, and measurable student/trainee outcomes. Even still, CE then become known as “a college within a college.” While this sometimes is borne as a mark of pride and distinction due to the complexity of CE, such a mindset also allows for the CE department to become an island unto itself. In such a state, it is even easier for the CE unit to become detached from the institution and thus perpetually be perceived as not meeting expectations.

In working relationships (in all relationships, for that matter), few things cause more frustration than not meeting expectations that were never communicated. It’s important to have a forthright conversation about what the institution expects from its CE units before those units can ever be expected to perform to satisfaction. Even more so, the vision and purpose for CE needs to be clearly defined. Whether the purpose is to generate revenue and contact hours, to serve the community, or a healthy mix of both, the conversation must occur. Such a conversation should start with the college leadership, but if it doesn’t, CE professionals need to be able to address the expectations gap with their leadership. Either way, an alignment in purpose and expectations among the institution’s leadership and the CE staff is paramount to CE unit success.

2. Determine KPIs and Support Their Achievement

Once the purpose of the CE unit and the expectations are clearly defined, the work of measuring the attainment of those expectations begins. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) need to be developed to assess the CE unit’s performance as well as better inform the unit and the college to make data-informed decisions regarding program offerings and budgetary support. The KPIs need to reflect the agreed-upon purpose but must also be measurable and achievable. Examples include projected increases in quarterly and annual contact hours and/or revenue over costs. Other important KPIs are those that are important to the unit’s customers, such as customer satisfaction surveys with trainees or businesses served.

Such terminology may be too businesslike for some educators, but higher education leaders and CE professionals should embrace thinking in business terms. One way or another, CE is a revenue-generating unit, and to think of CE in teaching-and-learning terminology alone undercuts the unit’s efforts and need for institutional support. Even if the agreed upon purpose is focused solely on un-fundable contact hours, community education and service-oriented programs, there are still finite resources with which to work. Thus, thinking in terms of costs and benefits leads to economization, which allows CE to better serve customers and clients (even under a pure community service paradigm).

In this same vein, higher education institutions need to staff and organize CE units in ways that support meeting KPIs. When we compare the staffing patterns of degree programs to non-degree CE programs and departments, we often see that CE units are producing many more contact hours per full-time equivalents (FTE) as compared to degree programs. Yet we should not be too enthralled with this seemingly cost-effective pattern. Institutions need to ensure that their CE units aren’t cutting corners to increase contact hours and that they’re staffed to support growth, success and compliance, and that the necessary systems are in place to scale back if needed.

To read Ian Roark’s second two points on how institutions can better-align with continuing education to ensure CE is successful, please click here.