Continuing Education 1: What Does It Mean?

Continuing education in the United States of America can be broadly defined as the body of learning opportunities that exist beyond the high school level, including nondegree career training courses, licensing programs, and personal enrichment, but which are not included within a specific degree training program.

Basically, anything that an adult learner wants to pursue that is not contained within the recognized boundaries of the college degree system falls under the umbrella of “continuing education.” The three main subsets of continuing education are career training, professional development, and personal enrichment.

Career Training

There are a wide variety of careers within the American employment landscape for which a college degree either doesn't exist, isn't required, or isn't necessarily the most efficient. Typical career training courses found under the heading of continuing education include medical assistant, certified nurse's assistant, welder/fitter, automotive technician, and HVAC technician, though the options are virtually endless.

Continuing education institutions specializing in career training offer programs designed for adult learners with a basic level of education (usually a high school diploma or GED) but no specific knowledge about the field that they are interested in entering. These programs take the students from having no knowledge about the field to being proficient enough to successfully vie for an entry-level position. Higher-quality programs may include an internship after the classroom portion of the class is completed. Career training courses are always taught by industry professionals with years of experience in the field.

Course durations vary, depending on the class meeting schedule (full time or part time). Typically, classes are scheduled to accommodate working professionals training for a career change, but full-time programs are not unheard of as a way to enter the workforce more quickly. The total number of hours also varies, but these courses typically focus tightly on the subject matter and functional workplace skills that the students will need to enter the field. They are quicker to complete than their college (usually community college) counterparts, due to the omission of any “general education”-type course work (such as English 101, etc.). However, these courses are also rarely eligible for federal assistance or any kind of higher education loans. Many of schools offering these types of courses are run “for profit” and may provide financing options of their own.

Professional Development

Professional development is perhaps the most direct application of the term “continuing education.” Students seeking continuing education courses for the purposes of professional development have already attained a degree, certificate, or license of some kind and/or are employed in a position that requires regular continuing education credits in order to maintain valid credentials and/or employment.

Teachers and insurance industry professionals are just two types of adult learners who typically need continuing education units, sometimes called “CEUs.” CEUs may be required on an annual schedule (X number of units per year) or within a set number of years (X number of units every five years). Professionals in certain fields (such as architects) are limited to CEUs from adult education institutions that have received accreditation or approval from an educational oversight body associated with their field. One CEU is generally accepted to equate to 10 hours of classroom instruction with a qualified instructor (therefore, a 30-hour continuing education course would be worth three CEUs). These courses also tend to be taught by industry professionals with significant experience in their fields.

Personal Enrichment

This sector of adult continuing education deals with those adult learning opportunities that are not geared directly toward the professional world. Examples of personal enrichment courses could include a beginner's photography class, basic cake decorating, floral arrangement, or conversational Spanish. Personal enrichment courses are typically more casual and considered “just for fun,” however practical topics or skills such as how to do your own taxes at home, setting up a household budget, or basic home repair could also find their place within this realm.

Adult continuing education institutions that offer “wellness” classes such as yoga or meditation may also file them under personal enrichment. Topics in popular culture or noncredit discussions of works of literature or other more “academic” subjects may also be presented as personal enrichment classes within the adult continuing education context. Today's job market has also led to a variety of “how to write a great resume” and “how to interview like a pro!” classes.

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