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What Is Continuing Education? 

  • 7 Min Read

Discover common student demographics, learning modalities and course types seen and used in continuing education programs.


In its most general sense, Merriam-Webster defines continuing education as “formal courses of study for adult part-time students.” 

When you start to break this definition down, it gets meatier. What is considered a formal course? What is an adult learner? What constitutes part-time? How are these courses being delivered and accredited?  

Turns out, continuing education might be a bit more complicated than originally thought. 

So grab your knife and fork as we sample the juicy bits of continuing education, from course types to student demographics and modalities.  

Student Demographics for Continuing Education

Continuing education (or continuing ed, for short) implies that the learner already has some post-secondary academic experience under their belt, meaning they’re less likely to be fresh out of high school. 

While continuing education is available to all student types, it’s fair to say that it can cater more to nontraditional students, particularly working adults. 

With busy home lives and full-time jobs, some of these learners are looking to fit education into their schedules where they can.  

They could be looking for a promotion, a change in career or an upskilling opportunity to prepare for a new role with their employer. 

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If your institution is interested in investing in continuing ed, it’s important to keep nontraditional students in mind when developing and marketing your offerings. 

Modalities of Continuing Education

There are no modalities set aside specifically for continuing education. However, when thinking about your target student audience, being flexible in course delivery can make a big difference. 

Some programs may be able—or need—to include in-person courses. For example, renewing a health-related license like CPR would require some in-person interaction.  

If you’re looking to make your continuing education offerings of utmost appeal, incorporating or taking a fully online approach can appeal to busy adult learners. 

It’s also important to consider the pace at which these courses are delivered. Since many nontraditional learners are interested in continuing ed, having programs that are available on a part-time basis can be beneficial for everyone involved. Part-time generally relates to the number of credits taken in a semester, in this case likely just one or two courses. 

Speaking of timing, whether a course is synchronous or asynchronous will also impact its success. If we consider the nontraditional learner again, many won’t be able to take a synchronous course happening during the day. They require the flexibility of asynchronous learning—the ability to study when it’s convenient for them. 

With any course, it’s also crucial to report on and analyze data from your offerings. This will help you determine what modalities are most effective for which programs and bring in a positive ROI. 

Continuing Education Course Types

This section will tackle the different forms lifelong learning can take. This list is by no means exhaustive but will help show that continuing education doesn’t fit into a box. 


In a D2L Teach & Learn podcast, Dr. Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning, tackled the topic of micro-credentials. “Most institutional providers see micro-credentials as supplementary or complementary to macro-credentials,” said Brown, clarifying that a macro-credential is a degree. “[Micro-credentials] don’t have to be supplementary, they can be infused or embedded into the credential ecology.” 

So, while not quite as academically rigorous as macro-credentials, micro-credentials offer bite-sized portions of whole degrees, or act as an appetizing side dish to the main course of a degree. 

Most institutional providers see micro-credentials as supplementary or complementary to macro-credentials … Micro-credentials don’t have to be supplementary, they can be infused or embedded into the credential ecology.

Dr. Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning

Micro-credentials allow learners to prove proficiency in a focused area. They can either be standalone courses or stacked to deepen skills and show further competency. 

This form of continuing education is more suitable for nontraditional learners who are looking to upskill for work or expand their education outside of their full-time jobs. 

Your institution can benefit from these kinds of offerings by opening itself up to a more diverse student group who may not be able to attend school full-time. 


Certificates include a predetermined cluster of courses related to a specific skill. When the classes are complete, the learner will be able to show proficiency in that area and will be rewarded with a formal certificate. 

This type of continuing education can often be a good fit for working professionals who can take the courses as their schedule allows and attain the certificate over time. They can add value to their resume, and, as with many other kinds of continuing education, be paid for or reimbursed by employee benefit plans. 

Certificates can allow your institutions to reframe existing courses in a different context and provide valuable education to a wider audience. 

Degree-Credit Courses

Some continuing education students want to take a one-off course that’s part of a larger degree. These people are often considered non-degree track applicants. 

These courses can be taken as a requirement for work or to test the waters of a new interest. So long as the learner meets the course prerequisites and there is space, they can apply for acceptance. 

Degree-credit courses can provide your institution with a way to fill empty seats, pull in extra revenue and possibly entice a student into taking additional classes. 

Transfer Programs

This continuing education course type allows students to take previously earned credits and apply them to different programs. For example, a student with a two-year college diploma can apply their earned credits toward a four-year program to shorten the length of time it takes to complete. 

This encourages both traditional and nontraditional learners to take a seat at the table when it comes to earning a degree. Adult learners who are looking to upgrade a diploma can advance their academic careers in less time, making juggling their often-busier schedules a bit more manageable.  

Young students who start off pursuing a two-year college diploma and decide they’re hungry for more education can apply the credits they’ve earned toward reaching their degree-driven goals. 

Creating more pathways for students to access what your college has to offer means opening your institution’s door to a wider range of applicants. 

Work-Integrated Learning

This kind of continuing education course isn’t always used for those looking to gain more education but can be an option for working professionals looking to upskill or restart their careers.  

Work-integrated programs offer students the ability to work while they learn. While this program type can include more traditional work experiences like co-op and internship options, institutions building partnerships with businesses provides another avenue for continuing education.  

This flexibility fits the bill for a lot of adult learners who can’t afford to give up a full-time job to return to school.  

Programs like Dev Degree offer students a full-time job at Shopify while they earn their degree, gaining professional experience and the chance to apply the skills they’re learning in class in a real-world environment. 

Other work-integrated learning programs, like Amazon Career Choice at Miami University, partner with specific companies to offer educational benefits directly to their employees. 

These kinds of work-integrated learning programs allow students to continue to work full-time while pursuing their academic goals. 

As these programs often tout high employability after graduation, they can help your institution draw in more applicants and boost your graduation rates. 


For some professionals—like nurses, insurance brokers or massage therapists—licensing can or must be completed or maintained throughout their career. 

While they’re working professionals, these learners need to make sure their credentials are up-to-date and current, which is often done through course completion or testing. 

Depending on what kind of courses your institution offers, you may be able to find a good fit to offer a refresher or licensing course as well. That can be the case if you’re already offering a robust suite of suitable courses, like medical courses and degrees. 

Investing in Continuing Education

Whether your institution already has a continuing ed department you’re looking to expand or you’re interested in developing one, now you have some options to help you get started. 

Understanding different interpretations of continuing education can help you determine which courses fit best with your institution, target audience and goals.  

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Table of Contents

  1. Student Demographics for Continuing Education
  2. Modalities of Continuing Education
  3. Continuing Education Course Types
  4. Investing in Continuing Education