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Education Information

What Is Continuing Education, and Why Should I Consider It?

Continuing education is a wide-ranging term that encompasses education outside standard high school diploma or college degree programs. Most participants in continuing education are non-traditional students–older than the typical college age group of 18 to 21. Some take courses for personal fulfillment, seeking out new interests or deepening their knowledge of existing ones. Others receive funding from their employers to take courses in key areas related to their fields. Still others are taking courses to maintain their professional certifications or to complete degrees they started years earlier.

Who Provides Continuing Education?
Continuing education is available through professional associations, businesses that specialize in career and vocational training, and traditional postsecondary schools, such as community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Often, professional organizations require or encourage their members to complete continuing education coursework every few years, and they offer courses in a range of topics that satisfy their requirements. For example, the American Psychological Association offers its members online courses, classes available at its conferences, and a list of approved outside providers of continuing education. Some businesses work with employers to design continuing education programs for employees. These programs are specifically tailored to employers’ needs. Many two- and four-year colleges and universities also offer continuing education programs, which can be part of an extension school or integrated with traditional degree programs.

Measuring Your Learning
Future employers might not necessarily be familiar with the institution or organization at which you took continuing education courses, and not all institutions offer college credits for the completion of coursework. Without a formal rubric, it can be hard to measure the quality and rigor of continuing education programs. Continuing education units, which are monitored by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, fill this need. Only institutions that maintain high academic standards can issue continuing education units. Each continuing education unit represents 10 hours of “contact time,” or time spent in class.

Flexible Options for Continuing Education
The University Continuing Education Association reported in 2006 that the most common continuing education programs at public universities are in distance learning. Distance learning is appealing because of its flexibility and the breadth of courses offered. Distance learning programs use technology to create “virtual classrooms” attended by students from across the country and the world. Examples of distance learning include online coursework, video conferencing, and lectures available on CD-ROM. Retirees traveling the country by RV, soldiers stationed in far-off bases, and twenty-somethings in rural areas can all take the same distance-learning course. Continuing education students gain access to a much broader array of courses through distance learning than they would have if they stuck to options that were closer to home, and they can complete their coursework on their own schedules. Just as traditional classrooms benefit from the insight and maturity of non-traditional students, distance learning becomes a richer academic environment because of the diversity of experience of the students.

Continuing Education for Professional Development
Taking continuing education courses can help you to gain new skills you need to advance in your career and to keep up with the latest innovations in your industry. Often, employers will offer partial or full tuition reimbursement to employees who complete continuing education courses. This can be a great chance to build your resume without paying the entire cost of tuition yourself, and many employers pay their employees’ full salaries while they are training. According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the two most popular course areas for work-related continuing education during the 2005-2006 school year were business and healthcare. Other areas of interest included computer science, general science, and education. By occupation, 56.3% of students in work-related continuing education courses worked in professional and managerial roles, 30.6% were in sales, service, and clerical work, and 18.7% were in trades or labor. The majority of students in work-related continuing education programs were 25 to 54 years old.

Continuing Education for a Degree
According to the University Continuing Education Association, 70% of the continuing education units at private universities and 41% of units at public universities are earned by students who are working to complete their bachelor’s degrees. The most popular degree programs in continuing education include business, general studies, and education.

Many continuing education programs, especially those granting degrees, offer credits for prior learning. These credits can be applied toward the total number of credits you need to graduate, shortening your time in school and saving you money in tuition and other school-related expenses. To qualify for these credits, you must demonstrate that your life has offered you experiences comparable to a college education. For example, if you volunteer for a non-profit organization in your community, you might be asked to write a paper about what you learned during your work there.

Continuing Education for Personal Pleasure and Fulfillment
While plenty of people take continuing education courses to help them in their professional lives, others turn to continuing education for personal reasons. If you were planning a trip to Spain, for instance, a course in conversational Spanish at your local university’s extension school could help you to prepare. Maybe you do physical labor all day, and you want to give your brain some exercise with a course in English literature, film, or philosophy. Or perhaps you work in an office and long to do something more physical. A course in printmaking or metalworking can get you back in touch with the pleasures of working with your hands.

Whether you are interested in continuing education for your career or for your personal fulfillment, you should find a course that meets your needs. If you cannot find the right continuing education course or degree program in your region of the country, distance-learning options can pick up the slack. Most people agree that lifelong learning is important. Continuing education is the perfect way to get back in touch with the academic community and reinvigorate your mind.

Publish date: March 7, 2008