Competition in Non-Credit Higher Education

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You might recall the joke about Fred Astaire and his well-known dance partner, Ginger Rogers: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, . . . backwards and in high heels.”

The same might be said about continuing education schools (CE) within traditional universities. They rarely get the respect they deserve, despite the fact that these schools have assumed responsibility for tackling some of the more important challenges facing universities in recent years. Online learning was often first tested in continuing education schools; CE catered to the non-traditional learner long before this group became the norm across higher ed; the financial model of CE sufficient made these schools market focussed, well before the budget/tuition crisis hit higher ed proper.

Many CE schools also have to operate in more than one market at a time: university credit courses, non-credit professional development, online education, undergraduate and graduate, personal interest, bridging programs for non-traditional learners, corporate training, IT training, association certification (e.g. Project Management Institute) and more. Universities have been known to use CE as a place to put things that don’t fit anywhere else.

Of all the categories of programming offered by CE, the most important distinction is between courses that offer university credit and those that don’t. The credit and non-credit distinction has implications for student loans, hiring practices, governance of curriculum, tuition pricing models, student motivations and market dynamics.

Competition in Non-Credit Learning

Competition in the non-credit arena is becoming increasingly heated, making it more difficult for CE schools to compete. Alternative education providers – from outside of colleges and universities – are getting their acts together and are likely to capture a growing share of the non-credit education market.

Examples of new types of continuing education from outside of colleges and universities, include:

  • General Assembly offers both face-to-face and online courses in the related fields of technology, small business and design.
  • Codecademy provides free programming lessons on Python, JavaScript, PHP and other programs.
  • Udemy offers online courses on a number of practical subjects like Excel as well as general interest courses like “Capitalism in Crisis: The global economic crisis explained.”
  • “Maker” culture, which took-off in 2013, promotes the idea that we need to get back to “making stuff” (rather than just consuming or manipulating). Students “learn by doing”.

Alternative providers are growing in number and instructional quality is improving. But the more profound change is that learners are inclined to accept the value and legitimacy of learning outside of the confines of the university context.

The days when colleges and universities could use their formidable reputations to reach into the non-credit market unchallenged are disappearing, and the economics of the Internet makes it easier than ever for small companies to compete with the once dominant footprint of higher ed.

We need these new learning providers. We are living through what appears to be a “jobless” economic recovery and people need a way range of options – at different price points – in order to quickly retrain themselves for a rapidly changing labour market. A robust and diverse continuing education sector is a priority for the 21st century and our government leaders and regulators should be crafting policy to make it happen.

But CE schools in traditional universities need to be a fundamental component of this emerging landscape. Universities bring certain a mix of competencies and resources, built up over time, that are invaluable to the lifelong learning imperative. Crafting the right response to meet the needs of these learners and the broader community is key.

In a second post on this subject, I will consider some of the tactics continuing education schools are exploring as they adjust to the rise of alternative education providers.

Keith Hampson

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU's long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive "intelligent" courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.