Published on 2014/06/30

Four Steps to Align Continuing Education for Success (Part 2)
A successful CE organization requires business-like management to ensure it can get off the ground and operate successfully.
This is the conclusion of Ian Roark’s two-part series exploring how higher education institutions can better-support their continuing education (CE) divisions to set them up for success. In his first piece, Roark discussed the importance of establishing the purpose of the CE unit and the specific key performance indicators (KPIs) necessary to track the success and activities of it. In this conclusion, Roark explores the importance of understanding and aligning to customer needs and market indicators for continuing education units to be successful.

3. Know Your Customers

Referring to CE patrons as clients or customers may seem too businesslike for higher education, but it’s appropriate for all aspects of CE. Whether it’s in allied health, workforce training, community education or even kids’ summer camps, anyone who enrolls in a CE course or program has an expectation of the experience and will either be satisfied or dissatisfied with it. Since CE units often serve at the gateway to the college for the entire community — given their broad appeal and program offerings — treating students and trainees as valued customers is vital to win their repeat business. This in no way detracts from the importance of human development and relationships in education. We, ourselves, are often return customers to businesses that make us feel special and with whom we have a personal connection.

Gathering and using data about customers is an important CE function, especially when meeting defined KPIs. CE leaders should use existing college systems or known add-ons to their institutions’ databases in gathering and analyzing customer data. Often times, the institution’s database has many CE-related functions and features that no one may have used or knew existed. In researching such options, CE units can avoid purchasing complicated data-tracking software packages that provide all the bells and whistles, too often promise the moon and, ultimately, yield little. Similarly, CE units should only focus on gathering useful data and avoid getting bogged down in fancy analytics. A thermometer from a dollar store or a free app on my phone is all I need to tell the temperature with the necessary degree of accuracy. Institutional trend data and readily available labor market data are often all that are needed to make sound program decisions. Also, CE units should not underestimate the value of qualitative data. Advisory committees, workforce board staff and chambers of commerce can provide CE staff with a wealth of input needed to better inform institutional and labor market trend data.

4. Scan the Horizon

Determining which CE programs and classes to offer involves using the current trends and qualitative data as lenses through which to view future projections. CE departments shouldn’t offer programs just to offer them or because they’re the latest trend. They should also avoid offering the “same old, same old” just because it’s convenient. Instead, CE units should view all of their offerings in terms of whether they result in meeting the agreed-upon KPIs and purpose of the unit. Scanning the horizon for the purpose of projecting future offerings is never an exact science. The willingness to adapt programming in response to shifting projections, as well as the ability to implement change, is far more important than the accuracy of initial predictions. The agreed-upon purpose of the CE unit and the ensuing KPIs serve as the guideposts in such periods of change.

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2014/06/30 at 7:42 am

YES! We need more stuff like this out there. Higher ed is a business. Higher ed units must operate like businesses.

Sometimes I honestly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation, but until I am out of breath and blue in the face I will continue to bang this drum.

Ryan S 2014/06/30 at 2:31 pm

The idea of a shifting CE value proposition has always made me nervous and I appreciate you addressing that earlier.

When the college is in the black, it’s our job not to sully the brand. When the college is in the red, it’s our job to generate revenue at all costs.

This approach is unsistainable, morale-killing and wrong-headed.

John G. Karmen 2014/06/30 at 5:44 pm

I found this series informative. Roark correctly identifies the major opportunities and challenges in developing a unit that is successful. I just want to comment on the point about knowing the customer. I think many institutions have valuable data already, contained in their enrollment and other student records, but currently lack the resources or expertise to comb that data for patterns to help CE units. This may be something that needs to be addressed either by hiring an external partner or in the next update of the institution’s LMS.

Jessica Prince 2014/06/30 at 7:01 pm

In terms of scanning the horizon, what I have found helpful is using an external consultant to assess my unit’s functions against market trends. Consultants who are worth their price will be familiar with the CE industry and have their ear to the ground on what the latest trends are and what’s quickly becoming outdated. This will allow institutions to be more accurate in their long-term CE planning.

Lisa C 2014/07/03 at 5:38 am

Very good points made by Roark in both articles. I would add that you also have to be prepared to establish very different timelines for CE units than for other units in the institution. When CE is closely aligned with the market, you should expect regular fluctuations in the life cycle of certain programs or services. You must be prepared to develop a program quickly but also to fold an underperforming program just as quickly. This is quite different from other units in the institution, but one of the keys to success for CE.

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