Continuing and professional education (CPE) units have always been managed like businesses. Unlike traditional colleges that are subsidized by public or private funds, CPE units must be especially sensitive to market shifts, demographic transitions, and economic disruptions. Like business leaders, CPE leaders tend to focus acutely on market trends, sustainability, and profitability.
Quite often, this leads to the use of emerging technologies, both to expand access to distant, busy learners and to develop pedagogical innovations that arise from new media. Since the inception of modern distance education in the 19th century, CPE units have pioneered education through the mail, over the radio, via satellite, and, most recently, online. Over time, by way of such an entrepreneurial, resourceful approach to education, the most successful programs have been whittled into entrepreneurial, nimble engines of creativity and sustainability.
The remarkable scale of discontinuity in today’s higher education market results from a confluence of familiar recurring factors that CPE units have always navigated, if not all at once. The Great Recession has, in many cases, led to reduced endowments and state funding. The mainstream media and politicians continually pressure institutions of higher education to defend their value. And prospective students, facing a tough economy and job market, expect every institution higher education to articulate and demonstrate its utility. Amid this competitive, challenging environment, universities today can no longer operate “as usual” and are looking to successful CPE units to model their developing strategic plans. In short, universities aim to operate more like self-sustaining businesses in order to create a hedge against economic and public funding cycles.
As universities adopt some of these “non-traditional” practices, CPE units face an opportunity to redefine their identities. Today, many continuing education units exist in one of three main structures:
- CPE as “the other:” In the most traditional business model, CPE is a separate business unit that handles any programming, services, and modalities that do not fit into what was once the traditional face-to-face, full-time, residential academic model. Many such programs have struggled to articulate their value to internal stakeholders; however, with downward cost pressure, shifting demographics, and urgency around the identification of new revenue streams, the leaders of these units find themselves front and center at the strategy table.
- CPE-as-a-service: Separate continuing education units as bases of programming operations have been dissolved, disseminating adult learner courses and programs across various departments. These units provide centralized services such as lead generation, marketing and market research, instructional design services, and alternative term business services are available to academic units managing non-traditional and outreach programming.
- CPE as Innovation Incubator: CPE units provide centralized service to academic units in the area of market-driven opportunity assessment, program launches, pedagogical innovations, and new modalities as a centralized service for academic units. More than a business unit that supports programming efforts, the “innovation incubator” is a strategic unit that is part of the cross-functional governance of program development. This unit identifies emerging markets, works within traditional governance structures in the institution to review and prioritize program opportunities, and designs the go-to-market plan. Once new programs are launched and prove self-sustaining, the programs migrate to academic units for management.
Across the board, new demands have spurred institutions to take a fresh look at the role of their continuing education units and how they can effectively, and sustainably, administer adult learner programs in an era of relatively scarce resources. Increasingly, expertise grounded in CPE units is required at the institutional level to guide strategic planning and implementation in order to meet a more market-sensitive mandate across the higher education sector.