CATALYST V21N4 - Choosing a Rationale for Continuing Education

Volume XXI, Number 4
Fall 1991

Choosing a Rationale for Continuing Education

Felix T. Haynes
Vice President for Instructional Services
Spoon River College

Charles H. Polk
Daytona Beach Community College

Originally published 19--, VI(4).

The community college movement is partially rooted in the notion that our nation required an institution of higher education that would operate in concert with the founding values of the nation. Early community college leaders viewed the American university as a closed elitist institution, created in the image of European universities to serve the needs of a society in which one's birth determined one's station in life. Those same leaders noted the disparity between the belief held by most Americans that men and women should be able to rise as far as their abilities and efforts will take them and a higher education system that, in effect, served to perpetuate the status of one's place at birth.

Community colleges have evolved to serve the goal of equal opportunity. Community college leaders have shaped that evolution with the belief that they were doing "the right things for the right reasons," and community colleges have grown because, on balance, they were consistent with those principles. The basis for this article is our belief that motives make a difference, and the notion that doing the right things for the right reasons can and should be applied in the creation or reorganization of a continuing education unit in a community college.

Some continuing education units have been created, or reorganized, for the sole or primary purpose of fostering growth or survival. Continuing education units designed to keep an institution viable during periods of decline are self- serving and less likely to succeed that are those that are designed to serve real identified educational needs of a community. By basing a unit on the former rationale, colleges may have inadvertently lessened the unit's chances of success, or have actually caused it to fail.

Certainly no college leaders would knowingly take an action for survival and sow seeds of failure in that action. The potential does exist, however, for such decision makers, either inexperienced in continuing education or unaware of the impact of the rationale upon which a continuing education unit is developed, to set the unit up to fail, or to weaken an otherwise promising initiative.

When a decision is made to reorganize a continuing education area or to establish a separate unit for continuing education, a proper rationale for such a unit must be identified and used as the basis for the unit's reorganization or creation. The rationale will provide the basis for the goals, programs, and services of the unit; and its impact on the total institution and on the unit must be considered. The assignment of some missions can be counterproductive, creating obstacles to success; other missions can have a positive effect. These effects may be felt in such diverse areas as programs, institutional integrity, college faculty and staff, finances, long-term planning, and benefits to students.

Institutional Mission and Community Need vs Survival or Growth

The mission of a community college can be stated as providing high-quality programs and services to meet the educational needs of its district. Some of these needs may be the first two years of a baccalaureate degree; preparation of students for employment or for improvement of job skills; development of the interests, skills, and hobbies of students; strengthening of the ability of citizens to perform their roles as consumers, taxpayers, voters, and parents; removal of time and distance barriers.

When policy makers conclude that a college has insufficient learning sites, insufficient offerings, or insufficient programmatic breadth to meet the educational needs of the community or district and decide to create or reorganize a continuing education unit to overcome one or more of these insufficiencies, they are doing the right thing for the right reasons. When policy makers give the continuing education unit the mission of overcoming recognized deficiencies and of meeting needs that have not been well met by the college previously but are within the institution's mission, they are doing the right thing for the right reason. Such a unit could be defined as well founded.

When decision makers reorganize or create a continuing education unit for survival or growth with little consideration of institutional mission or community need, they are doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Such a scenario may be triggered in a college where the attention of its leaders has shifted from its mission to its financial state. It may also occur at a college where leaders have become more involved with enrollment building than fulfilling the mission and serving community need. Problems in meeting a minimum required enrollment for funding purposes or minimum required revenue for financial solvency or survival may be the cause.

In some colleges, the creation or reorganization of a continuing education unit has been designed for survival, that is, growth in revenues or enrollments, and the continuing education unit is charged to attract additional students or increase revenue to solve the college's problems. The unit is explained internally and externally by the need for more students or revenue,and college staff identify the unit with this rationale. This type of unit might be identified as failure- prone.

College Mission and Institutional Integrity

Perhaps the first area affected by the choice of rationale for continuing education will be the programs and services offered by that unit. The programs and services offered by a well-founded unit will have the real benefit of being based on clearly identified community needs. It is easier to sell a product to a consumer who recognizes a need for it than to one who does not.

The staff of a failure-prone continuing education unit may be tempted, in concern for immediate growth, to ignore the important program development step of clearly identifying community needs or to base new programs or services on what the institution can provide. In either case, ignoring community needs will heighten the risk of failure of a new program or service.

Beyond the starting of new programs, the continuing focus (of lack of focus) on community needs will have a significant impact on overall program growth and vitality. A continuing education unit that continually focuses on community needs will increase its chances of selecting the optimum point at which to modify or stop offering a course or service by being aware of when a community need has been met. This awareness will increase the unit's chances of success by preventing the continuing investment of resources in a course or service beyond the point of institutional advantage.

A continuing education unit that is not directed by its mission to focus on community demand runs a greater risk of making less efficient and effective program modification or termination decisions. This may be particularly true in the case of a unit whose enrollment and financial growth charge has been met in terms of quantifiable goals. Once the quantified goal has been met, it might become attractive to the unit to maintain the programs and services that helped it reach its goal and stop the development of new programs and services. If community need were constant, this strategy might be effective; but in an environment composed of district residents who are using these programs or services, either the changing needs and interests of individuals or the continual offering of a program or service will cause the remaining need to decrease. A unit focused on having met its enrollment or revenue goal, instead of on community needs and changes, would not be as likely to keep up with those changes or to recognize new community needs on which to base further growth.

The continuing education unit's image within the college would also be affected by the rationale used for the unit's creation and the mission assigned to it. The internal image of the unit may be viewed as either contributing to the institution's integrity or detracting from it. A well-founded continuing education unit would have a better chance of being perceived as being worthwhile and contributing to the college's integrity. Because of its close ties to the college's mission, the unit would have a better chance of being seen as congruent with it.

On the other hand, a failure-prone unit might be perceived as gaining enrollment or revenue growth at the expense of quality and institutional integrity. The lack of congruence between the college's mission and the charge given to the continuing education unit will not be acceptable or defensible in the eyes of some college personnel, and the continuing education unit will have a poor image within the college.

College Faculty and Staff

Acceptance of the continuing education unit by the rest of the college would be enhanced by a good image based on a unit mission of program quality and community need and diminished by a poor image that may result from emphasis on an enrollment or revenue growth mission.

The acceptance of a well-founded unit likely would be translated into cooperation with the unit, whereas the lack of acceptance of a failure-prone unit may lead to conflict between the unit and the rest of the college. Cooperation between a continuing education unit and other components of the college is vital to the success of the unit. Because of their unique nature, such units frequently are forced to provide many more support services, such as registration, for themselves--services that are normally provided for the more traditional units of the college by specialized offices. To the extent that a continuing education unit can free itself of having to provide these services, it can concentrate on the development of more programs and services to meet community needs. A poor image of the continuing education unit among other faculty and staff of the college would contribute to a lack of cooperation and the necessity of the unit's providing more support for itself, none of which would foster success.

Within the continuing education unit, a unit mission based on program quality and community need would impact very differently on unit personnel than a mission of enrollment or revenue growth. A mission based on program quality and community need would tend to foster a concern for the overall effectiveness of the unit, including quality of instruction, meeting community needs, enrollment or revenue generation, budget management, staff development, and relations with the rest of the college. On the other hand, a mission based on enrollment and revenue growth would be more likely to encourage a concern for only those aspects of the operation to the detriment of other important concerns.

Undue focus on revenue and enrollment growth would tend to thwart the development of the continuing education personnel staffing the unit and narrow considerably the scope of the continuing education field. Continuing education is a field well founded in theory, emphasizing a comprehensive approach and a broad range of skills in its practice. Graduate programs in the area of adult and continuing education reflect the some breadth of concerns as programs in other educational specialties. The assignment of a unidimensional mission to a continuing education unit not only stifles the development of the professional staffing the unit, but also diminishes their professional status.

Emphasis on revenue or enrollment growth may also cause members of the continuing education unit to perceive themselves as temporary staff, candidates for termination once the goal is met. When a unit is encouraged to attract more students and integrate them into the "regular" college, the unit's staff are aware that some in the college may see them as temporary employees, targets for the budget ax once the new students are all integrated.

The impact on the morale and effectiveness of the continuing education unit staff of any of these staff perceptions could be negative and great. All these aspects of a failure-prone continuing education unit could be reasonably expected to materialize because the lack of trust regarding the unit among the rest of the college would be translated into a need to "bring that unit into line" by requiring many approvals as programs and services were developed by the unit. Some approvals are certainly appropriate, but too many can bind a unit so severely that its very effectiveness is threatened.

The unit morale and effectiveness would be enhanced by the perceptions of the staff of a well- founded unit. The staff of this unit would be expected to be concerned about all aspects of the continuing education operation. With the well- founded continuing education unit, a positive situation for the college would evolve because of the trust of the unit and its staff by the rest of the college. In this situation, the unit's staff could be expected to apply all of its quality control skills while a set of reasonable approvals by other college personnel during the program development process could be created.

In this positive situation, the college might well reap some additional benefits from the level of trust of the continuing education unit and its active involvement in the quality control process. Some traditional educators have a narrow view of what constitutes a quality program and the ways in which quality can be controlled. Frequently, such narrow views involve focusing on input variables, such as faculty and syllabi, and then requiring approvals for them from other parts of the college. Sometimes this means that traditional classroom instruction is the only mode of instruction perceived as having quality.

Yet continuing educators have developed alternative perspectives on what constitutes quality in continuing education programming and on how quality can be controlled. Within these new perspectives any learning mode, such as television, and any alternative service delivery method or credit for prior learning can have good or poor quality; and alternative quality control processes, such as focusing on measuring output variables, can be acceptable.

In the fortunate college with a well-founded continuing education unit and a good level of trust of the unit by the rest of the college, such alternate definitions of quality and the means of controlling it may have a better chance of being tried and implemented than in the college with a failure- prone unit and a low trust level.

Planning and Finances

The college with the well-founded continuing education unit also should experience a more positive impact in terms of planning and finance than the college with a failure-prone unit. The focus on community need in the college and in the unit should contribute toward long-range planning that emphasizes the college's and unit's mission and community need, with an eye toward growth, stability, or managed decline. The college with the failure-prone unit might well focus on growth for growth's sake in its planning process, with an attendant loss of stature as an educational institution.

The positive impact on planning in the college with the well-founded continuing education unit would be further reflected in the college's budget and financial picture. Continuing education units rarely have sufficient resources to carry out their mission. They are thus put in the position of seeking joint ventures with other units of the college. The level of trust in such a college would tend to facilitate this activity to the benefit of all concerned and the enhancement of the unit's effectiveness. The chances of this occurring in a college with a failure-prone unit would be much less because of the lower level of trust and the image of the unit among the rest of the college.

Student Benefits

Perhaps the most important comparison of the two different rationales for continuing education falls in the area of student benefit. Under which continuing education unit mission are the students and the consumer of the unit's services most likely to receive the greatest benefits?

It seems apparent from the previous analysis that in a failure-prone unit, growth, if it comes, would probably come at the expense of the student. The problems with quality and current programming, often present in the failure- prone unit, would all operate against the student's best interest, for the student has a need for a strong and dependable educational product that meets his/her needs today. The strengths in the areas of quality and in the focus on current community needs, which are predicted for the well-founded unit, would all operate in the student's best interest.

The well-found unit would also, by definition be more responsive to community need than the failure-prone unit. The greater level of trust throughout the college enjoyed by the well- founded unit, and its concomitant quality control process, would also enable the unit to respond more quickly to community need than the failure- prone unit with its low level of trust and tighter quality controls. Such responsiveness is an important characteristic of good continuing education units. It is likely that students will benefit more from the unit with a mission based on program quality and meeting community need.

The Right Mission for the Right Reasons

Just as the right mission has been chosen in our community college movement for the right reasons, we have suggested that the right mission for the continuing education unit of a community college is one based on program quality and meeting community need.

When a community college's decision makers find that there are community needs that are not being met, they are on firm ground when they create or reorganize a continuing education unit and charge it with the mission of expanding in a quality way the college's ability to meet community educational needs within the context of the college's overall mission. The college leaders who are more concerned with revenue or enrollment growth than with meeting community needs in a quality way, and who communicate this concern to their faculty and staff as a rationale for the creation or reorganization of a continuing education unit, run the risk of significant negative impact in the area of programs and services, institutional integrity, unit staff, other faculty and staff, quality control, planning and finances, and student benefit; and of significantly decreasing the unit's chances for success.

It is likely, of course, that both rationales for the unit's creation will exist. In fact, many continuing education units probably operate with concerns founded in each rationale. Concern about enrollment and revenue is present in the minds of all but a few community college administrators, faculty, and policy makers. But, in the overall operation of the college, as well as in the continuing education area, the negative impact can be great if we fail to keep the community college mission, community need, and program quality at the center of our thinking.

Copyright 1992 by the National Council on Community Services & Continuing Education. Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for sale