Since the phenomenal growth of community colleges during the 1960s, continuing education programs and departments have become a mainstay on the American higher-education landscape. Referred to in a variety of ways — adult education, distance learning, self-directed learning —continuing education is a very broad term. Generally, the field is separated into two main divisions: academic degree programs and nondegree training or workforce development programs. The gamut of continuing education activities can include basic skills training, apprenticeships, professional development and work-related courses, personal enrichment courses, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and part-time or online college or university degree programs.
Today’s “college student”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of today’s postsecondary students are financially independent; more than half attend school part time; almost 40 percent work full time; and nearly 30 percent have children themselves. Indeed, adult learners aged 24 and older represent the highest-growing population in U.S. higher education today.
Because of their life experience and the relevancy of their personal and professional goals, today’s adult learners tend to be more proactively engaged in the pursuit of learning. Motivated by the challenges of career advancement and other external concerns, most adult learners take responsibility for their education seriously and are very decisive when considering what continuing education programs can offer. The reality of investing time, money and long-term commitment tends to make adult learners more goal-oriented than their younger counterparts.
Further NCES data pinpoint more specifics. A greater percentage of females than males participate in personal enrichment and work-related courses. Blacks and whites participate in adult education more than their Hispanic peers. Among those employed in the past 12 months, continuing education participation was highest for those in professional or managerial positions, seconded by those in service, sales or support jobs and followed by employees in trade occupations. Furthermore, bachelor degree recipients or higher partake of continuing education more than individuals with some or less college.
Key issues, challenges, evolving trends
The demands of adult learners go hand in hand with a demanding and competitive job market. The changing nature of the workforce and constant fluctuations in labor statistics as tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor require a continuous cycle of worker training and retraining. Simply put, even in a recession, lifelong learning is a competitive necessity, both for individuals and for the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an arm of the Department of Labor, the number of unfilled job openings because of a lack of qualified skilled workers has risen steadily since 2009, reaching 3.7 million in March, up from 3.2 million last year.
In many fields, opportunities for training are a coveted employee benefit. In the ever-evolving information technology field, for example, employers offering continued learning opportunities remain competitive and enjoy higher employee retention. And in fields such as accounting, nursing and real estate, continued education is often required to meet professional standards or to satisfy relicensing requirements. The International Association for Continuing Education and Training, IACET, is a resource for companies seeking to keep workers abreast of training options and requirements.
It is not counterintuitive for consumers to make continuing education a priority during times of recession. In fact, because it increases an employee’s value to a company, investing in continued education has been shown to overcome some of the concerns and drawbacks associated with recession. As with any life-change decision, prospective continued education students should research their practical options. Selecting the appropriate program, seeking employer assistance, and researching the enhanced learning resources community colleges, high schools and other local organizations offer are key.
Adult education tuition and fees vary from school to school and program to program. And in many cases, application fees, technology fees and books and supplies add costs. A certificate program or single course designed to sharpen skills requires less expense than an undergraduate or graduate degree course, and potential students need to determine exactly what they hope to get out of continuing education before committing to a program. The bottom line is: Investing in enhanced learning is an investment in one’s future career and financial stability.
By necessity or desire, a majority of baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will remain in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age. According to a recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP, 8 out of 10 baby boomers intend to keep working past retirement. Many of them will start small businesses, reflecting a finding that the 55 – 64 age group is America’s fastest-growing group of self-employed workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 28 percent of the U.S. workforce is comprised of employees aged 50 and over. By 2016, that proportion will rise to 33.5 percent. The projected small-business development will fuel their need for continued learning.
Continuing education trends mirror evolving trends in education overall, many of which are driven by the technological advancements that have made online classes and e-learning commonplace. Less physical proximity to instructors and classrooms and less reliance upon textbooks reflect these changes. Overwhelmingly, the Internet and other digital media have become the continuing education delivery tool.
Opportunities for professionals and entrepreneurs
The adult higher-education industry offers a broad range of opportunities for professionals and entrepreneurs alike. A September 2009 report by financial services provider BMO Capital Markets values the continuing education market at $104 billion annually in the United States alone. To best serve the continuing education needs of their communities, many educational institutions profess a mission to build cross-disciplinary collaborations and partnerships within and outside of the academic setting. To that end, professionals and entrepreneurs often serve as teachers, consultants and mentors.
Orlando McAllister, an instructional staff head in the Department of Communications at the College of New Rochelle in New York, earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from the City College of New York after transferring from Howard University as an electrical engineering major with a full baseball scholarship. McAllister is also an accomplished jazz flutist and alto saxophonist. “Education is both formal and experiential and opportunities exist to share theory and practice with learners of all ages in a variety of settings,” he says.
Professor McAllister often introduces his students to communications professionals in seminars and workshops that foster career and media opportunities. As an entrepreneur, McAllister volunteers and performs for community-based cultural institutions to encourage continued learning experiences among his audience. “All participants can greatly benefit from the give-and-take of adult learning. It builds a more formidable and altruistic society and serves the progress of all humanity,” he adds.
Over time, access to knowledge has evolved. With the many advances that have opened doors to traditional higher education and online learning, barriers to becoming better educated have also dropped. As more and more adults seek credentials to enhance their employability, the importance of continuing education will permanently impact the U.S. education market.