A fortune in the short-term: Now is the time for continuing education programs to soar

The University of North Florida partially credits its enrollment growth to its focus on continuing education programs. But are institutions' outdated financial systems ready for an Amazon-like shopping experience?

The University of North Florida is bucking declining college enrollment trends in higher education, and John Kantner, University of North Florida senior associate provost of faculty and research, credits some of this growth to its focus on continuing education (CE) programs.

“One thing we’re very focused on is that UNF will be Jacksonville’s life-long learning provider,” Kantner told The Florida Times-Union. “Whether it’s dual enrollment for high school students or certificate programs that are offered either to young people or to folks looking to advance their skillsets.”

One international survey suggests universities that have developed continuing education programs and other short-term learning models could see growing demand in the coming years. CarringtonCrisp, a London-based consultancy, found that more than three-quarters (77%) of employers anticipate their organization developing a formal lifelong learning strategy to upskill and reskill staff. Seven of the top 12 areas where learners most wanted to reskill and upskill involved the adoption of new technology such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and digital marketing.

CarringtonCrisp culled responses from 1,100 employers and over 9,000 adults aged 25 to 55 across 32 countries in late 2023.

Some higher education institutions are already reaping strong results from their CE programs. Institutions that have used a Modern Campus continuing education student information system over the past three years have seen a 10% revenue and enrollment growth year over year, says Chad Rowe, vice president of product at Modern Campus.

Problems with developing continuing education programs

“[CE] divisions are positioned as a profit center at schools,” Rowe says, “so they have to carefully monitor the revenue and expenses at a level that’s much greater than you would see in traditional higher ed.”

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However, many universities’ traditional enrollment resource planning (ERP) software, which handles commercial transactions, isn’t set up for e-commerce-style shopping. Many students actively researching CE programs expect “instant gratification” on their purchase, Rowe says.

“These learners are expecting a very Amazon-like experience,” he says. “[ERPs] don’t support publishing a public catalog and allowing the students to add something to a shopping cart and pay in real-time with a credit card.”

One recent report by UPCEA, a nonprofit advocating for adult education, found that 74% of surveyed staff didn’t know the amount of revenue their CE programs generated, and more than half said they didn’t have a consistent tuition pricing model.

Universities that cannot adapt quickly enough to the lifelong education marketplace may fall prey to private training companies, consulting firms and in-house services, suggests the CarringtonCrisp survey. Respondents predicted that industry certifications offered by the likes of Microsoft and Amazon would be the most sought-after in the next five years.

How these 2 universities have responded

The David Nazarian College of Business and Economics at California State University in Northridge has integrated third-party certifications developed by Microsoft, Google, Bloomberg, HubSpot and others into its curriculum. Since it launched the Professional Education Beyond a Degree initiative in the 2022-23 academic year, students have earned more than 1,800 third-party certifications.

In 2019, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois in Champaign replaced its full-time on-campus MBA degree with a fully online program that serves as “an expandable ecosystem of credit and noncredit learning opportunities that are stackable toward a full degree.”

“Employers and employees alike recognize that viewing education and work as separate, sequential activities makes much less sense in a world where the pace of change is accelerating,” W. Brooke Elliott, the executive associate dean of academic programs, told AACSB.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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