This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

Is continuing education a profession? Is there a specific body of knowledge, mastery of which determines professional competency? What does one make of attempts to professionalize continuing education? These are among the nagging questions that have been noodled by CE deans, directors, and vice presidents for years. The current context in higher education has intensified the discussion. Apparently, there is no shared vision within the academy as to the role of continuing higher education.

Rather, in a variant of Miles’s law, “where you stand depends on where you sit,” continuing education is often viewed as a profession by those within it and, at worst, as an avocation or, at best, a service by those outside. Miles himself concluded that, in effect, this is to be expected, as perspective and responsibility change with the change of organizational positions, often resulting in a change of position on issues (Miles 1978). From the seat of this former UPCEA president with thirty years’ experience as a CE practitioner, adult education researcher, and graduate-level instructor, an honest reading of a century of CE history tells a clear story: continuing education is a vibrant profession ideally suited to lead higher education into an exciting future of daunting challenges and wide opportunity.


A Cornerstone of Higher Education

The establishment of UPCEA, even in its the earliest incarnation—the National University Extension Association (NUEA)—included concern for professional standards, instructional methods, and administrative practices, for “their mutual advantage and for the development and promotion of the best ideals, methods and standards for the interpretation and dissemination of the accumulated knowledge of the race to all who desire to share in its benefits” (Knowles 1994, 160). This is the legacy that has been carried forward through one hundred years of existence and thousands of professional development opportunities provided by the association for continuing education professionals.

College and university continuing education, by whatever particular name we call it today—continuing higher education, continuing studies, professional studies, university extension—has reached a point of maturity and can no longer be dismissed as an avocation. At the same time it has become the nexus of various historical developments, societal and cultural changes, and workplace requirements that have created a perfect storm of sorts, where demand is greater than ever. Many of the developments that continuing education has pioneered have become the cornerstones of contemporary higher education. For example, most of university continuing education historically has been self-supporting and revenue generating, operating as an entrepreneurial business unit within traditional colleges and universities. Cuts to state budgets, reduction in subsidies, a weak economy, and greater attention to pricing have all put tremendous pressure on higher education, limiting the growth of tuition, for political and practical reasons. As a result, continuing education and its ability to generate new and diverse revenue streams has been afforded a seat at the table as colleges and universities look to address issues of access and affordability, as well as relevance.

Except for some tenured faculty whose lives have remained largely unaffected, most aware employees in higher education now realize that higher education is big business and is impacted by all that entails (Selingo 2013). Some may embrace that notion, others abhor it; but the truth is that, as the saying goes, the horse is out of the barn. There is no going back; the question is how to deal with this reality. Selingo states that the higher education industry is “beset by hubris, opposition to change, and resistance to accountability” (ibid., x). He calls for significant changes to higher education, which, from the perspective of this continuing education professional, sounds like a call for the adoption of many of the core values long embraced by traditional continuing education.


Continuing Education Core Values and Competencies

The good news for continuing higher education is that some of the traditional core values and competencies of continuing education—strategic marketing, full cost accounting attributing for all revenue and expenses, analysis of return on investment, thorough program evaluation, retaining only the highest rated instructors, new program development based on market demand, investment of margin into future program development—are becoming part of the traditional higher education fabric and indeed part of the solution to many of the problems that higher education faces. Nontraditional adult students, once on the margins, are now in the mainstream and are no longer being labeled as nontraditional. Finally, online learning, once the marginal domain of CE units, has become part of the core, and no institution can expect to remain competitive without online offerings. Granted, there are many more challenges within higher education to address, but this is a healthy start.

At the same time, the challenging news for continuing higher education is that what was once marginal activity is now moving into the mainstream, from the edges to the center. Online learning, for example, has had a dramatic impact on many institutions as it has moved into the mainstream. While providing access to students and revenue to the institution, it has required new technologies and new strategies for instructional design and delivery of student services, to say nothing of the increased regulation from state and federal agencies and from regional accrediting bodies. To put it bluntly, expectations are higher than ever for continuing education to perform, to produce and, in many cases, to lead their institutions through rapid changes and into an uncertain future. At our one-hundred-year mark, that leadership challenge has never been more complex—nor more ideally suited to the insights CE leaders offer.

A brief and high-level summary of continuing education today underscores the wide variety of professional skills, competencies, knowledge networks, and even some personal attributes that are required for the CE leader and the CE unit to be successful. No longer is it sufficient to think of a single market segment, a single product line, and a simplified approach to marketing. All aspects of this enterprise have become multivariate and are constantly changing. Today, for example, the call is for data-driven decision making to maximize resources and determine appropriate return on investment (ROI). Everything is expected to be measured, not just marketing dollars. Data analysis is a key component of any CE leader’s workday, and staff expertise in data analytics is highly desired by any CE department looking to succeed and distinguish itself in a crowded and competitive marketplace.


Complex Organizations Pursuing Core Missions

From a structural or organizational perspective, the complexities of today’s continuing education units can be staggering. For some CE units, agricultural extension and cooperative extension have been merged with continuing education. Other CE operations have achieved degree-granting status, especially for adult students. Many more CE units work with existing traditional academic units to offer the degree to adult students while the CE unit provides exceptional customer service and student support. And to no one’s surprise, distance education and online learning emerged primarily and almost exclusively out of continuing education units. This is simply another chapter in the history of continuing education’s leadership. Students of the history of adult and continuing education recall that CE advocates began defying distance barriers by developing correspondence programs more than one hundred years ago, and today’s wonderfully complex distance learning programs and structures are an organic development of that innovation (Knowles 1994).

Still other CE departments have become experts in global education, creating partnerships and programs around the world, sometimes serving as the focal point for the entire institution’s global initiatives. Many CE units have become experts at partnering with third parties, both commercial and nonprofit, for all types of content and services, negotiating contracts, structuring revenue-sharing arrangements, even creating shared intellectual property.

By way of example, my own Division of Continuing Studies (DoCS) at Rutgers University illustrates the complex nature of today’s continuing education portfolio. DoCS consists of fifteen unique business units, credit and noncredit, on campus, off-campus, and online. We operate year-round, through the standard terms of fall and spring, winter and summer, but also in special terms for noncredit programs and on-demand learning online. We cover the lifespan with programs for audiences from pre-K through senior adult. In addition, we manage a small hotel and conference center and a fully digital, high-definition broadcast television production studio. This is a far cry from simple university extension and the early days of the Chautauqua movement. The vast majority of our operation is entirely self-supporting and expected to generate a margin that can then be used for reinvestment and to support traditional academic operations that do not cover their own costs.

This complex world of continuing education has required greater sophistication and new skills from both CE leaders and staff. New models have been developed, and continuing education has been able to leverage its inherent strength in partnering to forge new pathways that benefit students. New technologies and new resources have enabled continuing education to operate even more nimbly and with greater precision, basing decisions on data. The expectation for CE leadership is twofold: academic credibility and understanding and business acumen. Strong negotiation skills are definitely a plus. Dealing with space management, negotiating contracts, and developing and interpreting profit and loss statements are all part of the daily routine for university CE leaders today. A review of posted CE leadership positions reveals the demand for such expertise. Moreover, as the university CE model has become larger and more diverse, the discussion is not a debate between profits versus social good but rather about how we incorporate both dimensions in an ethical way. Indeed, there are many decisions related to ethical practice for both adult education instructors and program planners (Imel 1991).

While many have entered the field of adult and continuing education without formal preparation, either accidentally or through a personal commitment, or even as a result of a positive experience as a student, during the past seven decades graduate programs and associations in the field have played major roles in providing for the preparation of practitioners and scholars (Knox and Fleming 2010). Associations preceded adult education graduate programs in providing educational opportunities for the field and, in continuing higher education, have continually matured their level of service and knowledge.


UPCEA’s Continuous Education and Evolution

By way of example, UPCEA, in all of its historical iterations over the past one hundred years, has played a major role in the continuing professional development of continuing higher education leaders and practitioners. Throughout its history, programmatic offerings and services have been developed and refined to further the field of practice, to enhance the skills of practitioners, and to engage leadership in discussions and planning for future directions.

Probably the most significant of the programmatic offerings, in terms of numbers, is the annual conference, which draws six to eight hundred CE leaders and practitioners, dozens of industry representatives, and world-renowned speakers. The annual conference is complemented by regional conferences that draw a hundred or more participants from a specific region and specialize in showcasing local talent. For many years, UPCEA offered an executive assembly geared to institutional representatives to the association for an intensive deep dive on a timely topic. A dean and directors program continues to be popular as a separate program, connected to the annual conference. One of the most popular programs after the annual conference is the annual marketing seminar, drawing hundreds of participants, where the critical topic of program marketing in all its dimensions, from market research to digital and social media marketing, is addressed.

More recently, UPCEA partnered with the American Council on Education (ACE) to offer the Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy. The summit convenes key campus leaders and online learning practitioners to help define and develop institutional strategy for online learning. Through the years, other program models have been attempted; some have lasted, others not. For several years UPCEA offered a one-week intensive leadership program in the summer. In addition to program offerings, books, newsletters, online resources, and, most recently, social media have all been used to further the profession. These efforts have become ever more complex as the continuing higher education field itself has diversified.


Developing a Shared Vision

Bierema (2011) notes that the diversity of the field also presents challenges for developing a shared vision for the field. Yet, despite the acknowledged difficulties, she calls for dedication to continued professionalization as a way to develop a shared discourse and language about our practice, teaching, and research; delineate standards of practice; improve practice and create a process to ensure high quality; and rally, preserve, and bolster the status of the field of adult education.

One example of this diversity of the field, even within university continuing education, is represented by the analysis done by Cram and Morrison around social justice. They observe that there is a vigorous debate among university continuing educators in the literature between those who wish to respond to market demands and those who advocate a return to the social justice roots of the profession. As an alternative, they propose to think of social justice as a dialogic process rather than a product. Such an approach, they argue, will enable university continuing education to “remain at the cutting edge of educational innovation and service to society” (Cram and Morrison 2005, 45).

While these ongoing debates within university continuing education are certainly interesting, especially for students of history or philosophy, and sometimes make for engaging spectator sport, more interesting and impactful are the collaborations between university continuing education and external partners.

On the one hand, the university CE community has partnered with more traditional segments of higher education to the benefit of adult students. In 2000, a major institutional collaboration took place between UPCEA (UCEA at the time) and the Council of Graduate Schools to publish the book Postbaccalaureate Futures: New Markets, Resources, Credentials. Kay Kohl, executive director of UCEA at the time, and Jules LaPidus, president of CGS, were coeditors, and the book was published by the American Council on Education. Even at the time, this landmark publication was recognized as a significant development in the history of higher education. In the context of this essay, it is emblematic of the professionalization and importance of the continuing education enterprise. It also represents a key collaboration that acknowledges how much the adult student market has become mainstream within higher education and the value that CE expertise brings to the fore.

On the other hand, CE professionals have also increasingly turned to external resources for market intelligence and market research, looking to base programmatic decisions on data and market demand rather than whim or fancy. University continuing and professional education practitioners have been able to use sophisticated tools and services to assist with decision making and planning. Several large education research companies have been used by university continuing and professional education, and many smaller companies and individual consultants also provide university CPE with market intelligence and custom research studies.

Founded twenty years ago, Eduventures, based in Boston, conducts data analysis, research, and advising for higher education. They specifically serve university CPE through their Online and Continuing Education Knowledge Community. They help identify programs to invest in and grow, areas to avoid, and how to align programs with employer interests.

Another leader in this space is the Education Advisory Board, based in Washington, DC. Starting in 1983 with a single membership program for hospital CEOs, the EAB now provides services in fourteen areas serving health care and higher education. For university CPE, they provide a Continuing and Online Education Forum. Like Eduventures, EAB follows a membership model and conducts original research, benchmarking, and member inquiries.

Hanover Research conducts market research, institutional analysis, and grant proposal development. To assist higher education, they address enrollment management, new campus feasibility, tuition management, marketing effectiveness, and brand performance.

There are also research services available through professional associations. UPCEA founded the Center for Research and Consulting in response to members’ expressed need for benchmarking and actionable market research. Like other external services, the UPCEA CRC conducts custom research and consulting, national benchmarking studies, and individual consulting projects for UPCEA CRC members.


Reflection and Action

There are many other indicators of the growing professionalization of the field of adult and continuing education, including significant publications from the field itself.

The many editions of the Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education stand as “a revealing manifestation of and contributor to a long-running professionalization movement in the field of adult and continuing education” (Wilson and Hayes 2000, 6). However, Wilson and Hayes readily acknowledge the limitations of their own efforts as editors of the Handbook, including the fact that their edition was written by academics and not practitioners. They note that academics miss the messiness of practice, including the political, subjective, historical, and contextual perspectives and expertise the practitioners bring to the field (ibid., 669). Life in the trenches and on the front lines is very different than the view from the ivory tower.

The leading and more thoughtful practitioners in adult and continuing education have not been idly standing by while traditional academics analyze their work and issue pronouncements for improvement. More than thirty years ago, Schon discussed the crisis in the professions made present by the inclination to conduct society’s business through trained professionals (Schon 1983). The history of the development of the field of adult and continuing education underscores how continuing education has aspired to that same status. Schon’s “reflection in action” model has raised the level of discourse among CE professionals as practitioners. Today continuing education’s professionals not only battle on the front lines; they also take time to examine the view from the ivory tower, listen to other expert voices, reflect on their own practice, and find ways to improve praxis.

These same thoughtful academic practitioners have shared their insights, conducted and reported on empirical research, and suggested strategies for moving the field forward, largely through two professional journals, Continuing Higher Education Review and the Journal of Continuing Higher Education, each aligned with a professional association for continuing higher education. The history of these journals has been reported elsewhere. Suffice it to say that these two journals have sustained publication over a long period of time and have attracted a large following. The tenure of these two major journals and the growing sophistication of each is further evidence of the growing professionalization of adult and continuing education, nearing par with developments in other professions that Schon discussed.

There have been other efforts, including the groundbreaking online refereed journal, New Horizons in Adult Education, published out of Syracuse University beginning in 1987, moved to Nova Southeastern University in 1992, and picked up by John Wiley and Sons and renamed New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Moreover, a study conducted by Syracuse University students in 2003 produced a list of more than forty adult educational journals and organizations (Shablak, Charters, Newvine, Johnson, and Sims 2003).


A Proud Tradition of Opening Doors

There are also key milestones in the history of adult and continuing education that are worth keeping in mind as they precede, align with, or provoke the professionalization of continuing higher education. They are mentioned here as guideposts, not as an exhaustive history. In the United States, in 1862, the Morrill Act created land-grant universities by providing land for the university in exchange for a commitment to extend the knowledge base of the university (Merriam and Cunningham 1989, 31).

Malcolm Knowles, in his succinct and approachable History of Adult and Continuing Education, points to Cambridge University in 1873 as the first university-based adult education. Here the term used to describe this initiative was extramural studies to highlight the distinction between this effort and campus-based degree programs for traditional students. As this development was transported to the United States, the term changed to extension, as in university extension.

By 1914 the university extension mission was furthered by the passage of the Smith-Lever Act and the development of the Cooperative Extension System, focused initially on agricultural matters. Growth was swift, and by many accounts the impact was significant. Of interest to UPCEA was the formation of the National University Extension Association in March 1915. Not long after these developments, the field itself began to experience the push for greater professionalization.

The beginnings of a movement toward professionalization of the field can be traced to the 1930s, with the greatest growth developing at the end of World War II as part of an overall stabilization of U.S. culture. In the second half of the twentieth century, a focus developed on defining a specialized knowledge base and areas of expertise for the field, on credentialing, on research and the production of theory, and on creating a recognizable and formalized “discipline.” (Knox and Fleming 2010, 125)

The timing of this movement toward professionalization coincided with the growth of the professional association. However, since its inception, the professionalization of the field of adult and continuing education has not been universally accepted. In fact, several authors note that there is a dialectical tension created by the professionalization of the field. As Bierema noted, “professionalization helps move the field from a marginal status to one of social influence. On the other hand, the field’s absorption into professionalization may create a narrowly conceived field of practice that excludes and marginalizes diverse voices and approaches to adult education” (Bierema 2010, 137) In other words, the main issues surrounding the professionalization debate are whether professionalization truly improves practice or whether it constricts who can practice and how we define “good” practice (Merriam and Brockett 2007).


A Wide Vocabulary for Continuing Education

The term continuing education probably derived from the Center for Continuation Study, the first residential facility for adults, established in 1936 at the University of Minnesota (Knowles 1994). Knowles notes that the term spread rapidly after the Kellogg Foundation provided many grants around the country for the construction of continuing education centers, beginning with Michigan State in 1951.

Coterminous with the growth of university adult and continuing education, there were significant developments of adult education in other contexts. Business and industry began actively engaging in continuing education for its workers in the 1920s, and after falling off during the Depression, it picked up in earnest during and after World War II. Part of this growth and development included greater differentiation and sophistication of the employee education enterprise, including closer cooperation with formal higher education. Government agencies, health and welfare agencies, labor unions, libraries, religious organizations, museums, and public schools developed programs, outreach, and expertise that supported the growth of formal adult education (Knowles 1994). Even foundations played a role, most notably when, in 1926, the Carnegie Corporation facilitated the establishment of the American Association for Adult Education (Merriam and Cunningham 1989).

The 1920s also saw the creation of the Department of Adult Education in the National Education Association. These developments and others have contributed to the growth of the field in sheer numbers but also in the sophistication and diversity of offerings and have led to continued professionalization of those engaged with adult and continuing education. These changes have fueled the controversy over whether the field should strive toward greater professionalization and whether the professional associations should develop and administer certification programs (Merriam and Cunningham 1989).

As the field has progressed, diversified, and become more complex, the nature of the work has changed with it. Adult education has continued to be a work-related phenomenon. Much of adult education in the 1920s and 1930s was focused around liberal adult education and self-help, rather than training. By 1969, however, approximately 50 percent of adult education programming was work related, and by 1984 that had grown to 80 percent (Merriam and Cunningham 1989). The dominance of work-related curricula has continued with some minor counterinsurgency efforts, represented by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes established at various colleges and universities around the country, funded initially by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Dedicated to the liberal education of older adults, the OLLIs, as they are affectionately called, have developed a strong, loyal, and growing audience and stand as a reminder of the enriching, lifelong impact of continuing education.

University-based work-related continuing education has been amplified and supported by private sector investment, alone and in cooperation with university efforts. Training, one manifestation of adult and continuing education, is viewed as critically important in a competitive world economy. More and more professions have established mandatory continuing professional education as a requirement for maintaining licensure and certification. Less formally, the need to retrain the labor force is a constant refrain in popular and professional literature. Historically, adult education has responded to that need (Merriam and Cunningham 1989). The relevance of continuing higher education and the dominance of work-related activity persists today, as most recently exemplified in President Obama’s workforce initiative Skills for America’s Future.


Coming Full Circle to Look Ahead

In short, we have come full circle, moving from margin to mainstream, and the requirements for professionalization and accountability have never been greater. Perhaps this is a scenario where the maxim is true: be careful what you wish for. Have we become the victims of our own success and, as a result, now have made our work that much harder?

And what of the future, now that we have achieved a seat at the table, an air of respectability, as our primary audience, adult students, have now become the majority age segment across higher education? What does the future look like? I think the future is bright and our prospects are good, provided we continue to carry on in the best of the tradition of adult and continuing education. We must set the standard and lead by example by investing in our staff to ensure they master both continuing education’s core competencies and value continuing education’s proud traditions of open access and social justice. At the very least, it seems that we are well served to continue our own professional development, our efforts to advance the work of the field, and our contributions to the professionalism of our work.

To the membership gathered for his presidential address, former UPCEA president Roger Whitaker outlined his program initiatives and asked, “What shall we cause?”—as individuals in our institutions and together as an association. A decade later, in the context of our centennial celebration, it is fitting to ask about our future: “What shall we cause indeed?”



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Bierema, L. L. 2011. “Reflections on the Profession and Professionalization of Adult Education.” PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning 20, 21–36.

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Imel, S. 1991. Ethical Practice in Adult Education. ERIC Digests. Retrieved from

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Knox, A. B., and J. E. Fleming. 2010. “Professionalization of the field of adult and continuing education.” In C. E. Kasworm, A. D. Rose, and J. M. Ross-Gordon, eds., Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 125– 134). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kohl, K. J., & LaPidus, J. 2000. Postbaccalaureate Futures: New Markets, Resources, Credentials. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Merriam, S. B., and R. G. Brockett. 2007. The Profession and Practice of Adult Education: An Introduction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., and P. M. Cunningham. 1989. Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miles, R. E., Jr. 1978. “The Origin and Meaning of Miles’s Law.” Public Administration Review 38(5): 399–403.

Schon, D. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Selingo, J. J. 2013. College (Un)Bound. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Shablak, S., A. N. Charters, K. Newvine, M. Johnson, and A. Sims. 2003. List of Adult Educational Journals and Organizations. Retrieved from

Wilson, A. L., and E. R. Hayes. 2000. Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).