The continuing ed change up

New approaches emerge for serving part-time and adult students

With funding cuts, falling enrollments and increased competition from MOOCs and other low-cost online programs, higher education has been under enormous pressure in recent years. But pressure often leads to positive change, and many schools are looking at continuing education as an ideal area for that change.

Approached strategically, CE offers an untapped opportunity to drive revenue, boost enrollment and further an institutional mission by serving part-time adult students. But approached ad-hoc, without a thorough understanding of its history and dynamics, efforts to reorganize CE can backfire, costing money, time and resources schools don’t have to spare.

Before making major changes, continuing education experts say, consider the why.

“Some of these decisions tend to come from a naÁ¯ve business sense, from the perception that there’s all this money in continuing education,” says James Pappas, executive vice president of the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE).

If CE is restructured, surely the institution will benefit financially, officials believe. Often, the drivers are either mission or money, says Pappas, who is also vice president of The University of Oklahoma’s continuing education division, called University Outreach.

Is your institution’s continuing education division in need of a change? Consider the moves other colleges and universities are taking in effectively and efficiently operating in this area.

Reassessing structure

Revamping an institution’s continuing education arm can mean expanding existing programs, moving into new markets, or consolidating offerings, but the most common type of change considered is the move from a centralized to a decentralized organizational structure.

Decentralization is often seen as a cost-cutting move. But, says David Grebel, director of Extended Education at Texas Christian University and ACHE president, “you’re simply distributing the cost. In some cases, you’re increasing the cost.”

In Grebel’s opinion, such decisions are best driven by an institution’s mission. TCU operates a decentralized structure, with an emphasis on noncredit programs for the local community, especially seniors.

“We tend to be a break-even operation, but we justify that based on our mission of building stronger community relations,” says Grebel. TCU enrolls between 13,000 and 15,000 students annually in its noncredit programs.

Currently, many decentralized CE organizations are moving toward centralization. Much of that has to do with budgets—specifically, that CE is seen as a “cash cow,” of which everyone across campus wants a piece. Centralization is a way to moderate the distribution of incoming dollars.

“If the activities are decentralized, then the budgets or the revenues tend to go to the individual colleges,” says Pappas, whose unit at OU serves more than 200,000 students and draws more than $96 million in self-support revenues. “So even in those with a decentralized model, the desire of the centralized administration is for the revenue to come back to some central control.”

Part of this, Pappas says, is due to a shift toward responsibility-based budgeting—recognizing the administrative expense of registering students, managing programs and maintaining facilities. “Even though a college may have a professional program it offers to the community, and that portion of the program appears to be self-supporting, those are all direct costs.”

These costs need to be factored in when determining which portion of revenue should go back to the individual college, and which should be distributed across campus.

A move toward centralization may also mark an effort to protect a school’s brand integrity. The lack of quality assurance has officials at some schools worried, says Mark Posada, a training manager at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, which enrolls about 120,000 individuals per year. “It’s their name on those certificates, and not all departments are providing quality training,”

Some departments, too, don’t capitalize as much as they could on opportunities to drive revenue. Under a centralized CE structure, officials can help identify cross-selling opportunities that might be missed with a completely decentralized approach.

Richard Novak, vice president for Continuing Studies and Distance Education at Rutgers University, points to its certificate in social media marketing as an example of a program that can be leveraged across various vertical markets.

“It’s very interesting to technology people, but it’s also selling well in the pharmaceutical area, in health care, and in education,” he says.

Novak’s office serves as a centralizing function within a somewhat decentralized structure. Academic departments offer continuing education tied to a particular school across the Rutgers system. This helps foster collaborations among various units throughout the university.

Rutgers’ “modified decentralized” CE structure, as Novak calls it, also helps the division achieve economies of scale when purchasing services, technology or advertising. “Some of our continuing education departments are only two or three people,” he says. “But when we coordinate with these 35 to 40 departments and show that we bring in 130,000 registrations a year and $30 million, $40 million or $50 million in revenue for the university, that gets attention.”

Many years ago, Rutgers had a much smaller, very centralized CE division, which became entirely decentralized in the early 1980s.

“What we see is basically a cycle,” Novak says. “When CE is very centralized, it’s very efficient, but it loses that grassroots connection to local faculty and staff. So then, the push is to decentralize. But a very decentralized model is very inefficient. We reached that point of absolute inefficiency, so we moved back. I see that story repeated again and again.”

Working your strengths

Despite its advantages and the wider trend toward it, a centralized approach to continuing education won’t work for every institution. Ultimately, what’s needed is a structure that works with the institution’s own history and culture—one that allows officials to capitalize on opportunities within their markets.

Last year, Fairfield University in Connecticut closed its CE division, University College (UC), as a distinct administrative unit. This put all part-time, nontraditional students and programs back into the hands of the individual college deans.

The decision was made in light of Fairfield’s UC population shifting from primarily adults taking night classes to 70 percent traditional-aged college students, many of whom were taking daytime courses with full-time students, says Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Paul Fitzgerald.

“It didn’t seem logical anymore to offer special sections for them, because they were taking the regular daytime sections.” Also, in the past few years, part-time student numbers had steadily decreased while the full-time population increased.

Placing the responsibility onto the academic colleges, Fitzgerald says, helps ensure the quality of education delivered to part-time students and links them more directly to the resources and support that full-time students receive—thereby protecting the Fairfield brand.

Fairfield has also shifted focus more extensively to the graduate level, where 30 percent of its students are enrolled part-time. The university recently launched several new programs, including a masters in public administration and a doctorate in nursing practice, and has plans to launch three or four more in the next year.

Much of this is an effort to seize upon an identified need and niche within the Fairfield County region, where several private, state and community colleges compete in the CE realm—and where much of the population already holds a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

It’s also a way of staying true to the university’s mission: While Fairfield aims to offer a solid mix of both online and onsite courses, Fitzgerald says, “A Jesuit university demands a certain amount of face time and community. We’re eager to provide a liberal, humanistic education to distinct groups in the area for whom they could, if they wanted to, do a 100 percent online degree.”

Gerald Rhead, director of Michigan State University’s MSUglobal Knowledge & Learning Innovations division, says that simply shifting responsibility from the center to the colleges won’t eliminate cost. The benefit is more in allowing ideas to generate at the faculty level, which helps ensure faculty support and implementation through research, outreach and teaching.

But the positives of a decentralized environment can create additional challenges. MSU has operated with a decentralized CE structure for the past 20 years, in part out of necessity. With 17 degree-granting colleges, 200 programs and roughly 5,000 faculty and academic staff, Rhead says, “the diversity of programming and ideas generated make a centralized approach almost impossible.”

Often, decentralization arises from need. When Santa Barbara Community College lost funding from the state of California for many of its noncredit offerings last year, officials decided to break down its Continuing Education division.

What they did was integrate the remaining free, state-funded ESL, short-term vocational and GED courses into the college’s Educational Programs Division—all in an effort to streamline administrative functions, according to spokeswoman Joan Galvan. Nonfunded, noncredit classes were then converted to fee-based within a new Center for Lifelong Learning.

Considering the combination model

For many institutions, a hybrid approach to CE works best.

Amy Hyams, an education management consultant and volunteer advisor with the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, says, “The most effective model, based on my research and professional experience, is a combination—‘academically’ decentralized and ‘administratively’ centralized. This allows you to utilize the subject matter experts of faculty, which promotes buy-in and support, while maintaining the efficiencies of a central administrative unit.”

To make this work, she suggests that all continuing ed staff become involved with committees and find “champions” on campus. “I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to convince faculty and leadership of the importance of our role and function.” Instead, she advises, surround yourself with supporters.

Reaching new markets

Reaching out to new markets through CE can be a great way to bring in new revenue streams and boost enrollments. But a clear customer service analysis is needed first. Know whether your institution’s infrastructure and culture can really service the students within those markets without sacrificing quality of service, experts advise.

At Fairfield, this has included simpler efforts such as making sure there’s enough parking or food available and that registration is open later in the evening. Officials have also gotten creative by, for example, planning campus events geared toward older students with families.

Fitzgerald says it’s important to consider everyone’s perspective. “Talk to students to find out what their needs and constraints are, and also to faculty, staff and advisors who have direct contact with part-time students.”

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Conn.-based writer and an adjunct instructor at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

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