Despite high interest, continuing education programs are sputtering

"While 41% of respondents agree that continuing education programming positively affects enrollment in traditional programming, 60% disagree that continuing education offerings are well integrated into the structure of the institution’s portfolio of traditional offerings," according to the report.

Professional continuing education looked particularly enticing to colleges and universities in the wake of the pandemic and the staggering enrollment numbers that followed. With traditional enrollment taking a hit, higher education had to find new avenues to enroll learners, and these types of programs seemed to provide the flexibility that fits into almost every lifestyle.

Harvard has its own continuing education program that offers enticing degrees, certificates and courses, catering to students balancing a full-time job or even retirees who just want something intellectually stimulating to engage in.

However, these programs face a slew of challenges that are preventing higher ed leaders from truly capitalizing on this new market of hybrid learners, according to a new report conducted by Modern Campus in conjunction with The EvoLLLution, the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education (CAUCE) and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). The problems may also seem to be worsening.

“The future higher education institution is rooted in CE, but delivering on that promise requires both strategic and operational support from the institution,” said Amrit Ahluwalia, senior director of content and strategic insights at Modern Campus and editor-in-chief of The EvoLLLution, in a press release. “It is our sincere belief that the findings of this study will enable CE professionals to advocate for greater resources and allow them to be seen for the critical functions that their portfolio plays for institutions and learners alike.”

Conducted annually, the State of Continuing Education (2023) comprised the responses of 140 different institutions in January with directors and deans being the most common respondents.

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Strong interest / Weak application

Senior leadership is continuing to buy into their school’s professional, continuing and online (PCO) unit, 71% of respondents attested to that. A chief reason for this interest is probably correlated with the majority of respondents citing revenue generation (90%) and overall enrollment growth (76%) as key business drivers for PCO units. Adult learners were the most targeted demographic (95%) for PCO unit enrollment.

While it all seems optimistic in the abstract, lack of staffing (27%) was the most-cited primary challenge PCO units face to program expansion. When asked about general challenges, the administrative burden was cited most at 68%. Consequently, more than half of respondents don’t believe their institution is adequately staffed to meet their PCO unit goals (57%): only 22% of respondents believe they have the appropriate number of staff.

With the discrepancy in senior leadership support and appropriate staffing, there lies another big issue: Almost half the respondents this year do not find it easy for members of their institution to access enrollment data (46%), compared to the 34% of respondents who do. Moreover, 47% of the respondents themselves did not know PCO unit enrollment numbers when asked.

There is also still a considerable barrier for PCO unit students being able to attain college credits: 60% of respondents said that students cannot earn credit for enrollment in those offerings. Institutional barriers are the biggest hurdle to developing non-credit-to-credit pathways, which may have a lot to do with the administrative burden and lack of staffing illustrated earlier.

“While 41% of respondents agree that continuing education programming positively affects enrollments in traditional programming, 60% disagree that continuing education offerings are well integrated into the structure of the institution’s portfolio of traditional offerings,” according to the report.

Administrative strain, real-time data access and institutional barriers are worse than last year

Support for PCO units among senior leadership has increased by 5% compared to last year, but the issues schools are facing with its implementation are only growing. For example, respondents citing administrative burden as a challenge to expanding PCO units jumped 15% from last year. Additionally, 8% more respondents disagree that it is easy for members of their institution to access real-time enrollment data. Moreover, fewer respondents this year confirmed students taking PCO units can earn credit in those enrollment offerings and the institutional barriers preventing that have increased by 9%.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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