The Changing Market Conditions of Continuing Education in Traditional Higher Education

Originally written in 2015

Continuing education (CE) units in colleges and universities have historically been given little attention, and often little respect. But few departments have played as important a role in stimulating change within higher education. 

But conditions are changing and CE going to be increasingly subject to new forms of competition from outside of higher ed. These changes have implications far beyond CE alone.


Continuing Education as Instigator

For the past few decades continuing education units across the OECD have been at the forefront of many of the most important changes in higher education:

  • the frequent birthplace of online education in colleges and universities;

  • craft programs of study and flexible delivery schedules to suit adult learners;

  • open admission policies to expand access;

  • develop connections to local employers and, more broadly, workforce demands.

The impact of these efforts and others goes well beyond the continuing education, itself. CE often serves as an unofficial skunkworks — an incubator of ideas couldn’t be as easily introduced to undergraduate programs. It’s a testing ground for new approaches to teaching and learning that, in many instances, have been adopted widely by the parent institution.

CE units have been able to play this role because of their “relative autonomy” from the parent institution. CE are “ less bureaucratic, more responsive to industry and consumer needs, have less restrictive budget policies and procurement systems, operate under lower political pressure, and are often infused with the “startup mentality” throughout the organisation.“ (Horn, Laxton, and Lifshits, 2016).

CE as Targets of New Competition

A new breed of education and training providers have gained both size and stature during the past three-to-four years. We anticipate continued growth that poses a significant challenge to continuing education. A better understanding of these providers — the programs they offer and their business models — is necessary if continuing education units are going to respond intelligently to the competitive challenge presented. As a starting point, we’ve organised these new competitors into three categories:

Bootcampsoffer intensive programs on narrowly defined topics, both part-time and full-time, that typically run between 8 and 16 weeks. The subject matter is technology-focussed but also includes related courses in business and design. The growth of bootcamps has been nothing short of dramatic: North America-wide, the number of bootcamps grew from 67 in 2015 to 91 in 2016. Student enrolment is expected to climb by 1.7 times in 2016, to an estimated 17,966 graduates, up from 10,333 in 2015. Flatiron School of New York City caters to “highly motivated individuals” with 12-week programs that involve at least 500 hours of hands-on learning. General Assemblyrecently announced plans to expand into Canada. Only five years old, the company has 15 campuses on four continents and raised 119.5 USD million in venture capital.

Marketplacesare online platforms for buyers and sellers of training — usually single courses. Individuals and companies with expertise in a particular topic use these platforms as a means of acquiring customers and delivering courses. In exchange, they share revenue generated from the courses with the platform. Udemycurrently offers over 40,000 different courses on topics as varied as religion, language acquisition, Excel, time management, and web application development. While the crowd-sourcing approach to courses and subject-matter expertise may seem far-removed from higher education’s faculty model, the success of the Marketplace model has begun to attract well-known experts, such as best-selling authors Seth Godin. Moreover, the courses — which typically run 40 hours in length, and include heavy-use of custom-built videos and exercises, are priced as low as 9.99 USD.

Bridging Programs help students make the transition from university to work. Providers such as Fullbridge cater to students facing a tough new entrant market, by helping them develop the kinds of skills that employers are not always from an undergraduate degree in, say, Communications. Bridge programs seek to align themselves as closely to the labour market as possible, sometimes having students work on employer projects as part of a program. Other bridging program providers like Koru of Seattle have gone a step farther, building software that helps employers select candidates with the right skills and organisational fit.

Autonomy and Influence

Each type of training provider has the potential to usurp some of the space traditionally owned by continuing education units in traditional colleges and universities. As well as cutting into an additional source of university revenue, these external competitors may weaken CE’s ability to generate initiatives that stimulate innovation across the parent institution.

The new providers are free of many of the constraints that limit CE units. They don’t carry the same, heavy cost structures, for example. Colleges and university tuition help pay for a wide of services not offered by the new competitors, such as counselling, sports teams and facilities, libraries, and, of course, faculty research. Nor do they need to wait for approval for new programs from university-wide committees or stick to the semester model that dictates enrolment schedules and course length.

There are many limits, then, to the assertion that CE has “relative autonomy” from the parent institution. This is particularly true when the CE unit offers courses that can be used toward an undergraduate or graduate degree at the parent institution, or elsewhere. In this scenario, the academic department in the parent institution typically “owns” the course. The CE unit occupies the role of the “buyer” and the academic department is the “seller” — but the buyer in this relationship has almost absolute power, choosing if and when the CE unit can offer it.

There’s a significant power imbalance that needs to be factored into any discussion of CE’s relative autonomy vis a vie the parent institution. CE tends to have less authority in the institution than the academic programs that host faculty, degree programs, and research functions. Continuing education units, as anybody that has worked in one will attest, is often treated as a second-class citizen in the institution’s hierarchy. The needs of the “university” not the CE unit are considered first when dealing with issues such as the use of desirable classroom space, the availability of faculty to teach in CE (for extra income), and ultimately whether CE can offer “its” programs, at all. Indeed, the university has the power to pull the plug on the CE unit and to relocate CE courses back within the academic departments from which the courses originate — as a number of North American universities have discovered over the last decade.

But the tendency of CE units to align with the parent university goes beyond those situations in which credit (transferable) courses are involved; there’s a cultural dimension to this relationship, as well. Just as universities tend to mimic more highly-regarded universities (what Christiansen termed the DNA of higher education), CE units tend to mimic the standards and logic of the university in which they are situated, and to which they are vulnerable. CE units often try to act like the university’s of which they are but one, small part. They seek the respect of the university, proper — by mimicking it. The cultural dimension acts to discourage innovative practices that distance the CE unit from the parent institution. Even in circumstances where the CE unit may have the freedom to stake out a different path for itself and its students, the cultural logic and uneven distribution of power within the institution can stop such efforts in their tracks. This isn’t unique to higher education, of course. People and institutions with limited authority and status often respond to these conditions in this fashion. Or, they rebel. It’s not as if CE has a real option: if the CE unit sought greater independence from the institution, they would ultimately require the permission of the parent institution.

A Changing Economy of Credentials

The relative autonomy of CE units, then, has long been a complex matter in higher education. We anticipate the relationship becoming even more challenging in the coming years in response to anticipated changes in the credentialing market. And these changes will be particularly important to CE given that credentials are one of the most potent competitive advantages held by CE units over the aforementioned alternative providers.

In the next instalment, we’ll examine credentials as it relates to CE and recommend a number of strategic directions that CE units can take to successfully navigate the competitive landscape in the next five to ten years.

Keith Hampson, PhD. Co-Founder of, a research and consulting firm focussed on helping colleges, governments and businesses improve the value of digital higher education.