How Continuing Education Works

Nontraditional students enjoy some sun on the campus
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.

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, for example, which offers software tutorials for a monthly subscription.

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


Why is Continuing Education Important?

We've all heard that time is money. This oft-quoted saying can also apply to your education. The more time you put into pursuing additional education, the more money you're likely to make. Census surveys show that those with college degrees make around $45,400 a year while people with only high school diplomas make about $25,900 annually [source: U.S. Census Bureau].

Pursuing a degree can pay off. But what if you already have one? In any career, you want to make yourself as highly valued as possible. Continuing education can allow you to add new skills to your resume -- making you more desirable to potential employers or just your current one. In a tough job market, in particular, increased levels of expertise can help you stand out among other job-seekers. And should you want or need to change careers, additional education is almost always necessary.


Just be aware that continuing your education may add to your financial burden in the short term. If economic times are hard or your current employment status is precarious, carefully weigh the pros and cons of continuing education before making any sizable financial investment in it.

Perhaps your desire to continue your education isn't motivated by money or professional ambitions. Maybe you want to pick up a new pastime or hone an existing hobby. Or, possibly, you're seeking to satisfy your intellectual curiosity or meet a personal goal. A 95-year-old Kansas woman graduated from college along with her granddaughter in an effort to complete an education she began more than 30 years prior [source: ABC News]. She went on to receive a master's degree at the age of 98 [source: Huffington Post].

Movie director Steven Spielberg was certainly well along in his career when he received his degree in 2002 [source: The Telegraph]. The film icon had three Academy Awards under his belt when he decided to complete his education.

These two scholars, and millions more across the country, prove that the motivations and rewards of continuing education are as varied as the people who pursue it.

Keep reading for lots more information on continuing education.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • FinAid. "Financial Aid for Older and Nontraditional Students." (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • Hiscock, John. "Spielberg: why I went back to college." The Telegraph. July 1, 2002. (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • Huffington Post. "Nola Ochs, 98 Years Old, To Get Master's Degree." May 11, 2010. (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • Lifestyler. "Is Going Back to School During the Recession a Good Idea?" Jan. 14, 2009. (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • Milner, Jacob. "Should You Go Back to School During a Recession?" (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. "Fast Facts." (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. "Special Analysis 2002: Nontraditional Undergraduates." (Aug. 26, 2010)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "One In Four U.S. Residents Attends School." Jan. 19, 2005. (Aug. 26, 2010)