What is the Difference Between Non-Traditional, Continuing Education, and Workforce Development Programs?

What is the Difference Between Non-Traditional, Continuing Education, and Workforce Development Programs?

Why are higher education institutions across the country starting to expand their program portfolios to include alternative education programs? One only needs to look at the growing gap between education and employment, the rise of skills-based hiring, the decline in student perception of educational ROI, and the decade-long enrollment slide to get an idea. While continuing education and workforce development programs have been around a long time, the recent demand for alternative forms of education has given rise to a new term: non-traditional education.

What is non-traditional education? What do non-traditional education programs look like, and how is a non-traditional program different from a continuing education or workforce development program? Let’s dive into it.

What Are Non-Traditional Programs?

On the surface, a non-traditional education program seems to be a catch-all term for any program that isn’t “traditional,” e.g., a four-year, in-person bachelor’s degree program. But a narrower definition of non-traditional programs refers to a specific type of program: one that caters to non-traditional students.

Many consider non-traditional students to be any student over the age of 24. But the National Center for Education Statistics defines non-traditional students in the following way: “Non-traditional students are those who delay enrollment in post-secondary education by a year or more, or those who enroll non-consecutively or part time; they often have family responsibilities and financial constraints; they are also those who may not have received a standard high school diploma.” With this definition in mind, it becomes clear that non-traditional students are those who are often too busy to enroll in college full time, may not have the time or funds for a full degree, and need short-term and flexible education options that can help them achieve their own vision of success.

Non-traditional programs are therefore programs that cater to the wants and needs of these students. Non-traditional programs are often hybrid in format, short-term in duration, and incredibly flexible, with competency-based grading (i.e., grading based on a summative assessment of skill or subject mastery) and credit occasionally awarded for student life experiences.

What Are Continuing Education Programs?

Like non-traditional education, continuing education is often used as an umbrella term. In this case, however, continuing education tends to refer to any education that occurs after a post-secondary degree has already been earned. When we think of continuing education, we think of adult learners who already have a degree and are looking for additional courses or certificates in areas like finance, healthcare, marketing, or cybersecurity, to name a few.

What differentiates continuing education from other types of non-traditional, post-secondary education options is that continuing education programs tend to be longer (a year at least), contain multiple courses, and can often be combined into a certificate or even a master’s degree. Continuing education programs are often added onto somebody’s education portfolio later in life as their careers shift (moving from teaching to administration, for example) or their interests change.

What Are Workforce Development Programs?

Workforce development often falls under continuing education but is a specific type of program. In many cases, workforce development programs are divided into two types—jobs training and professional development—but both types tend to be skills-based programs that help learners get hired in a specific line of work.

Workforce development programs can vary in type. Programs geared towards jobs training can focus on real estate, personal training, risk management, water quality—you name it. Professional development programs are often even shorter in duration and focus on things like communication, executive leadership, and teacher assessment.

Workforce development programs are also often run in partnership with local corporations, which help create the curriculum and provide faculty. Like non-traditional programs, they are often competency- or portfolio-based, meaning credit is given for mastery of a skill or a cumulative project.

What Do Higher Education Institutions Need to Create and Grow Non-Traditional Programs, Continuing Education Programs, and Workforce Development Programs?

The needs of a workforce development program differ from those of a continuing education or dual-enrollment program. This begs the question: What technology do higher education institutions need to build and manage their entire alternative education portfolio?

Running multiple alternative education programs requires a system that can manage various program types and their diverse structures. For instance, competency-based and dual-credit programs can be six weeks or even semester-long. The system needs to be flexible in its ability to manage payments and course schedules, and should be able to set up unique catalogs that differentiate and clarify programs. Most importantly, colleges and universities need a system that will eliminate barriers to enrollment and simplify the overall enrollment process. In particular for workforce or professional development programs—where companies often enroll employees—institutions need a system that allows for bulk purchasing and enrollment.

Because many of these programs are experimental in nature, higher education institutions need a platform that can house non-traditional student data as well as analyze that data to determine whether programs are popular and effective. The system should also seamlessly integrate with an institution's SIS, LMS, and finance software and be able to create reports to ensure programs remain accredited.

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