Breaking With Tradition: The Future of Continuing Education
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Breaking With Tradition: The Future of Continuing Education

As higher education institutions evolve over the next half-century, continuing education units should gain more autonomy as degree-granting units on campus, allowing the institution to capitalize on the particular elements that help these units to succeed.

The ground is shifting in fundamental ways in higher education and the repositioning of continuing education (CE) units within an institution will play a strategic role for the financial survival of many colleges and universities.

Over the next 50 years, the traditional role of CE units will expand as public institutions become more tuition driven and their private counterparts seek additional revenues to remain competitive. With these objectives, higher education institutions will become increasingly dependent on CE studies to generate revenue and to fund overall institutional operations.

Many institutions will be forced to consider whether their organizational structure is aligned with their ability to remain financially viable. Maintaining a competitive edge, capturing niche markets and leveraging internal strengths will entail, most notably, the strategic repositioning of CE units.

Many CE units already have the capacity to fund high-risk, high-potential programming — working in delivery modalities and formats attuned to the non-traditional learner. And many aggregate the interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary curriculum of their college partners in order to broaden the institution’s market reach.

Advocates of repositioning further argue that a CE unit with control over the means of degree production will allow the institution to be more market agile and more flexible in expanding its strategic programming choices. To do this, a structural repositioning may be necessary: the reconstitution of a CE division to a degree-granting unit.

This repositioning strategy, employed at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston, was built on a successful track record of a CE division that developed non-credit continuing education and professional development programs and supported the seven university college partners in the development of credit-bearing offerings. The University’s Division of Corporate, Continuing and Distance Education was granted authorization to become its eighth degree-granting college in 2010.

A clear case for structural repositioning was made as a strategy to help the institution adapt to the converging forces driving change in higher education. A number of strategic opportunities foreshadowing the future higher education environment were envisioned if a structural repositioning of the division into a degree-granting college was to be achieved. Being a degree-granting academic unit would, over the next 50 years, allow:

1. Greater market agility

Becoming a degree-granting unit would increase the CE unit’s ability to accelerate to-the-market offerings — especially in formats for the non-traditional learner (e.g. accelerated time to completion, career focus, online delivery, etc.) — with the capacity to grant its own undergraduate and graduate degrees and for-credit certificates.

2. More control over review processes

Speed to market will be critical in remaining relevant, and to take advantage of emerging professions. As its own college, the CE unit would control the review processes related to course approval and curriculum, and create its own college degree requirements based on the best features used by the other colleges within the institution.

3. Greater flexibility to serve as an incubator

It will be critical for higher education institutions to establish niche markets. Being credit-granting would expand the CE unit’s strategic programming choices to fund high-risk, high-potential, market-driven programs.

4. More streamlined processes

Operating efficiencies will be critical to ensure fiscal viability. As its own degree-granting college, the CE unit would have the capacity to streamline procedures for curricular changes and faculty personnel actions, and staff efficiency would increase.

5. A clearer identity

The market will increasingly eschew confusing organizational identities and will gravitate toward institutions that can clearly state what their programs can do to help advance their students’ careers. Thus, a clear identity as a college is critical to enhancing the CE unit’s standing in the marketplace.

6. Name recognition as a college

Branding the CE unit as a college will become increasingly critical to help current and potential students, their parents and faculty understand its purpose and mission, and will elevate it as an equal partner with the other on-campus colleges.

7. Governance structure attuned to the unit’s mission

As the CE unit evolve into equal academic partners with the other campus colleges, it will be critical to establish a governance structure attuned to the unit’s mission, enabling the development of its own bylaws and committee structures.

8. Academic and research credibility

It will be critical for the CE unit to expand its capacity for scholarly contribution and membership in the learning community, in order to be considered as an equal partner among other colleges.

9. Advancement, development and fundraising potential

The CE unit’s establishment as a college will be critical in provoking interest among alumni and prospective donors in order to build an endowment fund and generate non-tuition income.

During the process at UMass Boston that led to ultimate reconstitution approval, it was clear that not everyone perceived the new designation as a college as the natural evolution of the CE unit’s coming of age. To mitigate the concern some felt about the reconstitution of the unit into a college, assurances related to limitations on growth and additional layers of cross-campus governance were built into the birth of the new college.

As the only CE unit designated as a college in the UMass system, the lack of historical precedent led to a number of misperceptions even after the arduous birth of University College, formerly the Division of Corporate, Continuing and Distance Education. As the only self-supporting academic unit at UMass Boston, some expected a zero-sum result, with enrollment being diverted away from the current discipline-based colleges to University College.

Since the new academic unit had no clear disciplinary home, others anticipated that with the unit’s new power to create its own degree and credit-bearing certificate programs, intra-campus competition for students would inevitably occur.

The inherent baggage that came with transitioning from being the campus’s entrepreneurial revenue generator to an academic unit with a core entrepreneurial component created a number of leadership and organizational challenges.

The overarching challenge was the displacement of the status quo. A new academic unit inevitably presents a perceived threat to the existing discipline-based silos that control the means of degree production. Cutting across the existing power structures, where entrenched interests exist, required a commitment to a well-thought-out cause and effect analysis, and an attention to the leadership challenges and strategic opportunities accompanying such an organizational repositioning.

Confronting the multi-faceted and wide-ranging organization leadership challenges of a newly launched academic entity is essential. Five areas of need were identified, and they point to an aspect of the relationship between the CE unit and the other colleges and main campus. These areas of need, and corresponding actions, position the CE unit over the next half-century as its relationship with the campus evolves.

(1) An internal strategic communications plan directed toward the other colleges and the main campus. It is essential that an ongoing message strategy be in place to establish and maintain the new college brand; this is critical in institutionalizing an understanding of the mission and goals of the new college, and realigning perceptions.

(2) Effective long-term internal processes that establish the CE unit’s role as an equal partner among the colleges and as an academic unit. This can be achieved through a series of interrelated activities with the other colleges and the main campus, such as driving new program development, incentivizing collaboration and accelerating growth.

(3) Change management processes directed at cultivating an on-going relationship with the other colleges and the main campus that take a proactive, systematic approach.

(4) Addressing financial obstacles that align the CE unit’s interests with those of the other colleges and main campus by shaping solutions to resource constraints and impediments and optimizing financial opportunities for the institution as a whole.

(5) An external strategic communications strategy, in partnership with the other colleges and the main campus, through an ongoing series of interrelated activities geared at market branding.

As higher education institutions adapt to the transformations taking place in the industry, the CE unit will play a significant role in institutional survival. Over the next half-century, the CE unit will be increasingly seen as an essential revenue center, an important source of funding for institutional initiatives and as a fulcrum for innovation, investment and growth. This role will mean an evolving relationship with the main campus – with evolving interactions – where the CE unit becomes an equal academic partner among the institution’s colleges and schools. The repositioning of the CE unit into a degree-granting college within the institution may be emblematic of that evolution.

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3 Responses to Breaking With Tradition: The Future of Continuing Education

  1. Bill Wright Reply

    2013/03/08 at 11:08 am

    I love the idea of positioning the CE unit as an incubator for new, high-potential programs.

    I read another article on this site about the need for CE units and other colleges/main campus to become more integrated, and this seems like a good example of when this integration would be beneficial. CE units could certainly pass on their lessons learned from any pilot programs introduced, and perhaps even the programs themselves if they proved to be successful. Having the CE unit as an equal partner within the institution would be helpful for this type of discussion.

  2. Peter Laramie Reply

    2013/03/11 at 11:09 am

    This is a highly interesting piece. Regarding your comment that, in order to mitigate concerns over the repositioning of UMass Boston’s CE unit as a college, “assurances related to limitations on growth and additional layers of cross-campus governance were built into the birth of the new college,” I would like to know: what were some of those limitations? Were they seen as adequate mitigations, and how were they communicated internally?

  3. Ewan Philipps Reply

    2013/03/11 at 1:44 pm

    As you mention, UMass Boston’s CE unit had a “successful track record” that paved the way for the UMass system to reposition it as a college. What would you suggest for CE units that are not quite there yet? How do we position ourselves and increase our capacity so that, when the time comes to discuss restructuring, we have a solid foundation on which to build?

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