Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Continuing Education Works


Continuing your education may add a financial burden in the short term, but in a tough economy, increased levels of expertise can help you stand out among other job-seekers.
Continuing your education may add a financial burden in the short term, but in a tough economy, increased levels of expertise can help you stand out among other job-seekers.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Drive through a college campus, and you'll see the usual suspects: young adults shuffling by in jeans and flip-flops, carrying a menagerie of tech devices, laughing and talking with their equally youthful friends. But if you look a little closer, you'll notice that not all of the college students look like they were just sprung from high school. Some may be wearing work clothes and carrying a briefcase. Others might have a small child in tow. You might even see a few gray hairs in the crowd. That's because quite a few college students today are known as adult or nontraditional students, and they're participating in a form of higher learning known as continuing education.

Continuing education is a category of schooling that varies in exact definition from college to college and organization to organization. Broadly, it covers degree-seeking students who didn't jump right into post-secondary education after high school, as well as people with or without college degrees who are pursuing additional training, licenses or degrees. Continuing education programs, often categorized as adult learning or lifelong learning, can include part-time degree programs, basic skills training, professional training, apprenticeships, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and personal interest pursuits [source: National Center for Education Statistics].

So whether you're an insurance agent who needs to take a few industry courses for certification, a single mom pursuing a bachelor's degree, a young professional wanting to add a new skill to your resume or a married couple seeking a Tuscan cooking course, continuing education is likely your path. And you're not alone: Almost 45 percent of the U.S. population participates in some type of continuing education, with the majority taking work-related courses [source: National Center for Education Statistics].

Just because you're going back to school or taking classes doesn't mean you have to rub elbows with campus coeds. Yes, many continuing education programs do take place on college or university grounds, but a lot are offered through other groups -- such as professional societies, corporations and community organizations. Even the courses offered through a local college or university don't always take place on campus -- many are hosted throughout the local community.

And don't forget long-distance and online learning options. Most educational institutions now offer online classes for continuing education, and there are also subject-specific sites that offer online training -- like Lynda.com, for example, which offers software tutorials for a monthly subscription.

On the next page, we'll look at the benefits of continuing education.