Thinking Local: How Non-Degree Education can Revolutionize a Community


Best practices for a higher ed institution are difficult to assess. To generate revenue, colleges and universities must focus on finances and find ways to adapt to changing markets. Yet every not-for-profit higher ed institution has a greater purpose: to enrich lives and educate learners.  

A healthy balance has to exist between the two interests—financial and moral. The balance is perhaps exemplified best by continuing ed departments.  

These departments are regularly the ones that best serve locals, and after completion, provide the most value to those living in the community itself.  

Tom Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida, sits down with Illumination host Amrit Ahluwalia, to talk about the differences between in-person and virtual conferences, and the relationships public universities have with their communities. 

Historically, there have been inconsistencies in how non-degree programming is offered, even when a continuing education department is present at an institution. Schools need this “accessibility arm” to extend into the community so that those who are underserved by traditional higher ed can be included as a difficult but necessary part of running a college or university.  

It is a process that many schools are looking to streamline but are challenged to actually complete. 

“There is going to be a different set of circumstances at each institution,” Cavanagh said. “The schools may have their idiosyncratic reasons for developing a continuing ed division. In my experience, a hybrid model is the most centralized, and the advantage with a centralized orientation is we can be a lot more strategic with different programs each offering something unique.” 

Centralization, in this context, means consistency. Pricing and delivery should all be similar to maintain both a fair playing field and a consistent brand across a continuing ed division. Relationships with local businesses—a fairly common occurrence in continuing ed—have pros and cons from an administrator’s perspective. These partnerships have the potential to drive costs way up, potentially pricing out some students. Yet, the benefit from a business’ expertise is invaluable. 

It is a risk-reward system.  

An aggregated, centralized model, Cavanagh says, means that students can be better served. A hypothetical course that serves as a training program for a company—say within a business school that is working on coding support for developers— needs diversity training for all of its employees. This is something that serves only the company, not the community as a while.  

“Only by having a bit of a higher perch and a centralized point of view, can we see how to bring all of the assets of a university to better serve partners in a way that really adds value,” Cavanagh said.  

The University of Central Florida runs a sort of hybrid model for these types of programs, which means there are regulations to be followed. The school’s continuing ed team knows and respects that.  

 Cavanagh says there are still legacy programs and specific colleges at UCF that stray from their current model, but for the most part, programs follow a specific system.  

 “I’ll be honest: there are some challenges trying to get some colleges to understand the value of continuing ed in their programming,” Cavanagh says. “They may think it’s just overhead management. Or they just have to pay somebody to do something that we’re going to deliver. But it’s not that simple.”  

For the most part, non-credit programs run through UCF’s continuing ed unit, which receives no slice of the institutional budget. The entire department is running auxiliary. Cavanagh says the schools needs to rely on the quality of service and the value the school brings to the community, as students are the primary source of income.  

Staff and faculty need to buy into the notion that continuing ed as a community program is a viable model for institutional business growth and the quality of education.  

Cavanagh says there has always been an expectation that legacy courses would be the outliers in these sorts of situations. The outliers often have their own niche and stick to it while other programs broaden out and serve wider communities. So even though these issues persist, he and the continuing ed team at UCF has not really had to convince anyone that this business model is a good idea. Instead, he says the regulations and requirements that UCF uses are more = tied to funding.  

The ties between the community and a post-secondary institution that it dwells within need to be clear from the beginning More and more people are moving towards these non-credit programs that are offered locally and serve to better the area around the school. 

In doing so, the way that higher ed is thought of is changing as well. We have all heard of the phrase “think globally, act locally”, and this is a perfect example. With enough students acting to better their community, no matter their location, a ripple effect of overall betterment for local communities and higher ed as a whole can occur.   

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Last updated: February 25, 2022


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