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Continuing Education Gets Hotter As the Job Market Cools Down

August 4, 2008

By Andy Smith, The Providence Journal, R.I.

Aug. 3–Bad times usually mean a boom in continuing education.

The economic rule of thumb has it that when jobs are scarce, more people return to school to seek marketable skills, while people who already have jobs seek a competitive advantage to keep themselves employed. “When the economy is down and people are unemployed, they’ll go back to school and get some retraining to make themselves more marketable… it’s an investment in the future,” said Louis A. D’Abrosca, dean of academic administration and continuing education at Johnson & Wales University.

Educators contacted for this story said they are still waiting to see their enrollment numbers for the fall, but preliminary indications show an increased interest in continuing education. At the same time, there is some concern among administrators about how students will pay.

Joanne McQuesten, director of continuing education admissions at Johnson & Wales, said applications for the fall are up 28 percent over the same time last year. She said Johnson & Wales now has about 825 students enrolled each trimester in its undergraduate continuing education programs.

D’Abrosca said Johnson & Wales is offering new certificate programs designed for adult students who attend evening classes, including basic management, human resources management, financial services, operations management and travel agent certification.

Annette Cerilli is director of the executive development center at Bryant University, which provides professional and business education for adults, and has between 2,500 and 3,000 students a year. Cerilli said the center is still gearing up for its fall courses, but judging by the number of inquiries it’s been receiving, interest is on the upswing.

“People are still interested in investing in knowledge, because knowledge is a competitive advantage,” she said. “Many companies are still paying for employee development, which is a way of retaining valuable people.”

Particularly popular, she said, are courses in lean production methods, which are designed to minimize waste of time and material; business continuity, which teaches how to keep a company operating after an emergency; business strategies for the nonprofit sector; and project management.

Dante Del Giudice, interim director of continuing education and summer sessions at Rhode Island College, said he doesn’t have exact figures, but judging from the number of phone calls his office has been getting, he also believes there’s an increased interest in continuing education. The college’s traditional strengths in continuing education are in teaching and social work, he said, two professions in which credentialing and recredentialing are key.

But he is also hearing from people who are looking for a career change, such as the student who graduated with a degree in English in 1985 and is now looking to get a nursing degree. “I get a sense that people are stepping up to improve their options,” he said.

Del Giudice said continuing education students accounted for 24 percent of the 3,216 students enrolled in Rhode Island College summer sessions. Last spring, continuing education students made up 12 percent of the college’s 8,549 students. The percentage is higher for graduate students at Rhode Island College — 57 percent this summer and 48 percent last spring. Del Giudice said he believes these figures reflect efforts by working professionals to enhance their employment status.

Continuing education is a term that refers to education beyond high school, generally for adult learners who are beyond the traditional age of college undergraduates. It can lead to a college degree, or a certificate in a particular occupational area, or simply improved job skills. While continuing education courses are often geared toward employment, many are taken simply for personal enrichment.

Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, a nonprofit consulting company based in New York City, said two related forces are driving interest in continuing education. One is the current downturn in the economy. The other is the changing nature of work, as more and more jobs require some form of post-secondary credentials.

“It’s not just a downturn in the economy; it’s the shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, and that requires a new set of skills,” he said. Alssid said there has been a lot of growth at the community college level, which is a primary source for short-term occupational training.

Kristen Cyr, spokeswoman for the Community College of Rhode Island, said the school’s division for lifelong learning serves 31,000 Rhode Islanders a year, with programs that range from workplace literacy to pet-assisted therapy. Cyr said there’s a tremendous level of interest in the health-care field, which has been identified by state economic officials as an area of job growth. Cyr said CCRI’s pharmacy technician program, new this year, already has 100 would-be students on its waiting list.

Another new course, she said, is called electronic technology integration, which essentially means setting up increasingly sophisticated electronics systems for home use, which have become so difficult that consumers often need outsiders to do it for them.

Cyr said CCRI won’t know for sure until the fall, but her best guess is that there will be an increase in enrollment, based on the pattern of increased interest in education during tough economic times.

Charles K. Rogers, special assistant to the president of the New England Institute of Technology, which has about 3,200 students, said there’s been a surge of interest in information technology courses, revolving around computer networking and software. “Anything dealing with computers is kind of on fire,” Rogers said.

The other hot subject, he said, is health care: “A ton of people want to get into the medical field.”

Rogers said about 40 percent of New England Institute of Technology students come directly from high school, while 60 percent are older. Enrollment has been going up, he said, and he believes it will rise still higher once the fall semester starts.

In his experience, he said, interest in continuing education does rise as the economy worsens. But with students facing a credit crunch, high unemployment and high gas prices, he said, paying for that education is becoming more of a problem. “Lots of people out there need the training, but it’s more difficult for them to get the money,” he said.

In an e-mail, RIC’s Dante Del Giudice wrote that the downtown in the economy appears to have a negative impact on overall enrollment at RIC.

At Rhode Island College, state residents pay $716 for an undergraduate course in the summer session; graduate students pay $932. At Johnson & Wales, tuition is $657 for classes in the school of business. At CCRI tuition is $128 per credit hour for in-state residents. Cost for programs at Bryant’s executive development center ranges from $499 to $3,900. Cerelli said Bryant’s center has been seeing more students who are receiving federal grants administered through the state’s Department of Labor and Training. Within the past four years, she said, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the center’s students have been financed by the grants, a figure “absolutely more than in the past.”

There are two basic financing sources for work force education available through the Department of Labor and Training. One, the Workforce Investment Act, is designed to provide job training for unemployed individuals, with the intent of returning them to the work force as soon as possible.

In the last fiscal year, the state received a federal allocation of $1.4 million and provided training for 900 people. Kim Weiss, chief of labor and training operations at the Department of Labor and Training, said she expects the number of people it serves to increase by 40 percent in the next fiscal year. Participants in the Workforce Investment Act program can receive a maximum of $5,500 to pay for training programs.

The state maintains a list of approved training for Workforce Investment Act clients, among them programs at Bryant University, CCRI, the International Yacht Restoration School, Lincoln Technical Institute, New England Institute of Technology, New England Tractor Trailer Training, Rhode Island College, University of Rhode Island and more.

A second financing source is the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which was created to help workers who have lost jobs through overseas competition or because companies move production overseas. Last year, the state’s federal allocation for the program was about $1.3 million, with 727 participants in the program.

Alssid said one of the trends in continuing education is the increased popularity of online classes, sometimes known as “distance learning.” At CCRI, Cyr said the number of participants in online programs at CCRI increased from 350 last year to 520 this year. At Johnson & Wales, McQuesten and D’Abrosca said the university offers a handful of online courses, but recently hired a new staffer to oversee its online offerings, and they expect to see some expansion in that area.

Alssid said a popular approach to online learning is a “blended” or “hybrid” approach, in which students take some of their courses online and some of them in a more traditional campus setting.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Providence Journal, R.I.

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