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More institutions are seeing support for online continuing education programs, according to a new report.

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Online continuing education programs saw improved staffing and increased support from institutional leadership in the last year, but still face many challenges, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The “State of Continuing Education 2024” survey found that 45 percent of respondents said they have appropriate staff levels for their continuing education units. That is more than double the 22 percent of respondents who agreed last year and the 21 percent in 2022.

“That is a massive shift from the last two years,” said Bruce Etter, UPCEA’s senior director of research and consulting. “I think support and buy-in from leadership is at a tipping point and translating to resources.”

However, he said, having less than 50 percent reporting adequate staffing is “still an indication of how far we have to go.”

The survey was conducted by UPCEA, formerly known as the University Professional and Continuing Education Association; the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education; and EvoLLLution, an online higher education publication.

The report also found 81 percent of institutions received increased support from senior leaders for their online and professional continuing education (PCO) courses. Those programs—including areas such as microcredentials, certificates, stackable credentials and corporate training—have seen steadily growing support in recent years, with the number rising from 66 percent in 2022 and 71 percent in 2023.

A persistent problem is that many institutions do not know how many people are enrolled in their programs even as more online and continuing education courses are offered.

Nearly half of respondents (48 percent) did not know their total enrollment numbers, a consistent issue over the last two years (47 percent did not know for the 2021–2022 year and 46 percent didn’t in 2020–2021). Less than one-third of respondents (29 percent) agreed it was easy for staff to access enrollment data—down from 34 percent in 2023 and further down from 35 percent in 2022.

“When we started this survey, [the low numbers] made sense, but how has it gotten worse, especially when it’s gotten support from universities?” Etter said, adding the lack of available data was the most surprising part of the entire report.

“Enrollment numbers are the lifeblood of the unit,” he said. “If you don’t know your enrollment numbers, how can you evaluate performance on any level?”

The report also found a perception that while there is more innovation at the universities, the PCO units are seen as less “academically equal.” Just 17 percent agreed their unit is seen as equal to other academic units in their institutions.

“I think PCO units still suffer from being seen as the island of misfit toys,” Etter said.

Other highlights of the report:

  • The number of institutions offering microcredentials has continued to increase, rising from 63 percent in 2022, to 75 percent in 2023 and, now, 84 percent in 2024.
  • The majority of PCO programs (96 percent) served adult learners or transfer students—the next largest group served were corporate audiences (79 percent) followed by alumni (75 percent).
  • A majority of institutions (74 percent) said their PCO unit is successful in generating revenue.
  • PCO units’ most popular offering are badges with 85 percent of institutions offering badge options, although that is down from 91 percent in 2023.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of current survey participants agree that continuing education programming positively affects enrollments in traditional programming.

Etter said he believes there will be a greater boost in PCO units as the general push for technology across college campuses continues, along with the increasing pressure to diversify revenue streams.

“If you’re unable to attract 100 undergrad students,” he said, “You have to make that up eventually somewhere else.”

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