Why CE Matters: History of Continuing Education

Continuing education (CE) is a term many professionals are aware of, and that isn’t a statement that could have been made years ago. Whether required to receive specific certifications or something pursued for personal fulfillment and satisfaction, continuing education is something that is now more available and recognized than ever before.

If you’re looking to pursue continuing education, you may have questions. Maybe you’re wondering if CE courses are relevant to your profession or future. Perhaps you’re unsure why continuing education is important in the first place. The bottom line—CE matters. To understand this, it’s important to take a more in-depth look into the history of continuing education, starting at the beginning.


What Is Continuing Education

Continuing education – commonly referred to as “further education” in certain areas of the world – refers to a large range of post-secondary learning programs, courses and activities meant to take curriculum-based university-level degrees to the next level.

Continuing education is based around the premise that students in a given area of study are looking to expand on their, already large, knowledge base. Because of it, these courses are not basic, but rather supplementary. Courses can be offered by universities, professional organizations, online providers, and a variety of other educational sources depending upon the subject matter.

CE courses can be mandatory, as found in many educational, accounting and medical professions, or optional. The spectrum is broad and the variety of courses available is fairly rich.

The History of Continuing Education

To understand the importance of any subject, especially relating to education, it’s critical to take a look at where it started and go all the way back to the beginning; CE is no different.

While the exact start of the practice and idea of continuing education can be difficult to ascertain, the first academic institution to provide education to adult learners who had completed undergraduate degree programs was the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1907.


Following the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s program, which targeted past students, the New School for Social Research was the first American school designed specifically for adult learners looking for key subject matter, though it was not clearly designated as continuing education, and students did not have to have a degree to partake. This school was founded in 1919.

Eventually other programs began to spring up. Empire State College – a sub-unit of the State University of New York was founded in 1969. The school was the first institution in the United States to provide higher education to adult learners who had completed degree programs. Empire State College was unlike the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s program, which blended university and post-graduate degrees, and the New School for Social Research, which had blended course offerings. On the contrary, Empire State College focused exclusively on providing continuing education in the format that it is recognized today.

It became apparent quickly that continuing education was difficult for working professionals to fit into already busy schedules. With this in mind, the University of Florida created an entire department – the Division of Continuing Education – which offered courses during evening hours and on weekends to accommodate working and professional students. Started in 1976, the modern model of advanced course offerings on flexible schedules was born.

As time passed, during the 1990’s, the number of available CE programs and course offerings skyrocketed, as did the number of professionals enrolled in the programs. At that point, over 50 universities offered industry-specific continuing education programs.

Today, whether mandated or by choice, more individuals than ever are pursing CE courses. From professionals who understand the importance of continuing education for X-ray technologists and other medical fields to those looking for an edge in the downturn of the economy, CE provided a boost to their careers and gave many working adults a reason to go back to school.

Why Continuing Education Is Important

Now that you understand its origin, it’s time to move into why continuing education is important – this fact cannot be understated. Taking available courses is critical for long term success, whether you’re continuing education as an electrician, licensed contractor, accountant or doctor who is mandated to keep a license or certification current or a public relations professional looking for a way to keep an edge or learn more about current technologies.

The basic premise is that those professionals who take the time to pursue higher education will gain an edge over their competitors who will not.


Dr. Marianne Greenfield, a program chair at the same university, agrees and said: “As more and more people are obtaining academic degrees, the advantage lies with the candidate whose skills and knowledge are current and relevant in the workplace. Continuing education is especially important in areas such as human resources, engineering, technology, finance and healthcare, where rapid advances occur, leading to constantly evolving practices.”

Put simply, professionals who pursue continuing education credits on a regular basis are more informed and up to date with what is happening within their industries. They are more aware and educated when it comes to current practices; this provides an edge – during the hiring process and beyond – that cannot be understated.

Studies and Stories

In the United States, nearly 76 million adults are enrolled in secondary and post-secondary educational courses according to the most recent data available. From online CE real estate classes to cruises that offer CE credits for certified public accountants, courses are more accessible and popular than ever before.

Some experts believe that continuing education provides benefits that go far beyond an advantage in the workplace. In some cases, these experts believe that continuing education helps workers clarify and understand their professions and purposes on a deeper level – that the combination of theoretical and practical knowledge related to a specific occupation improves collaboration, problem-solving and other necessary traits while establishing and regulating occupational standards that set certain industries apart from others.

Continuing education also benefits employers by contributing to longer employee work terms. A study by Spherion Atlantic Enterprises, LLC found that 61 percent of employees who receive training, mentoring or reimbursement for continuing education credits were most likely to remain with their current employers for the next five years or more. CE creates stronger, more engaging employee-employer work relationships.


In certain professions, obtaining continuing education is critical, and the effects of not doing so are detrimental to a number of people. This is especially true of the accounting and medical fields. A story released in 2011 highlights this fact.

In most states, accountants are required to take a specific amount CE credits every two to three years to renew their licenses; in New Jersey, this includes a four-credit course on laws and ethics. In 2011, officials uncovered the fact that four percent of licensed accountants in the state had falsely reported having taken the ethics course when they had not done so in reality. Many of these same accountants were found to have not taken other required courses as well.

This is not only disturbing, but it’s detrimental to the public as well. Accountants are responsible for the financial futures of their clients; not taking required courses, which include information on constantly changing tax laws, could cost millions of dollars at both the individual and state levels. While the study failed to release details about money lost as a result, the potential was great.

In the same way, continuing education for medical professionals – those responsible for keeping patients alive and reliant upon the latest technology, medical finds and medications – is critical for the benefit of patients. Failing to take CE courses is not only doing a disservice to you, but it could also be harming those who depend upon you.

Different Forms of Continuing Education

Various formats exist for continuing education, which is why it is now more accessible than ever.

Continuing education courses are offered through:

  • Universities
  • Specific continuing education schools
  • Training centers
  • Workplace training program
  • Professional organizations

In addition to being offered by a variety of providers, continuing education can take on many forms, including:

  • Weekend or weeklong conferences
  • Webinars
  • Teleconferences
  • Weekly courses in a semester format
  • E-learning classrooms
  • Traditional classrooms

Continuing education can be internally or externally motivated.

Internal Continuing Education

Internal continuing education is motivated by the individual pursuing the courses. It can be influenced by a variety of factors, but generally, learners fall into one of the following categories:

  • Goal-Oriented. Goal-oriented learners are driven to continuing education for a specific purpose: a degree, a recertification, a certification and so on. There is an end goal – a personal goal – in mind.
  • Activity-Oriented. Activity-oriented learners just want to learn. They are individuals who truly love learning and are driven by the ability to learn something new while connecting with others.
  • Learning-Oriented. Sometimes these individuals are called lifelong learners. Reading, traveling or other motivations may spark an interest in continuing education that may have nothing to do with a specific career course.
  • Self-Direction Oriented. If someone is a self-directed learner, they are more likely to take a course which gives them control or allows them to learn at their own pace. A specific end goal is in mind, but it is completely motivated from within.

External Continuing Education

In certain situations, continuing education is not optional, it’s a mandate. Individuals pursuing continuing education for external reasons generally fall into one of two categories:

  • Occupational Necessity. Certain licenses – CPA, medical licenses, law accreditations, real estate licenses and others – require a specific number of CE course hours during a pre-specified time period. Professionals in these fields must take ongoing CE credits to ensure competency and long term success.
  • Life Style Change. If a professional in one field is looking to move into another field, it’s likely that additional learning will be required. A lawyer cannot become a real estate agent upon a whim. Instead, courses – and in some cases, exams – are required to switch from one profession to another. In this case, learning is externally driven by a life style change.

In addition to a variety of program offerings, learning styles and locations, continuing education courses can fit into one of two categories as to what they offer students.

Degree/Certificate Continuing Education Courses

Continuing education courses that provide credit hours are generally accredited by professional organizations or institutions of higher education – like a university. These courses provide a specified number of credit hours that work toward an end goal, such as a license or re-certification.

Non-Credit Continuing Education Courses

Non-credit continuing education courses provide useful information, but they do not provide CE credit hours. This means they cannot count toward degree completions or certifications. These courses generally provide overall information or techniques relating to specific skills. These are usually shorter in duration, less expensive and less formal.

Marketing Continuing Education Courses

As previously mentioned, continuing education courses can set one professional apart from others. Because of this, if you’ve completed coursework or are looking to do so, it’s important to market it. Take advantage of a few of the following techniques for best results – especially during the job search.


If you’ve earned it, you should share it.

It’s also important that your current employer be made aware of any CE courses you have pursued or are looking to pursue. In some situations, tuition reimbursement may be available. In other situations, it’s possible that you could be eligible for a higher pay grade as a result of coursework that has been completed.

Marketing yourself as a skilled professional is critical in other areas as well. Continuing education for electricians and contractors could help a potential client chose you over another, be sure you include your coursework in any and all marketing materials. Learning is always a positive thing.

Put simply, continuing education is important for a variety of professions. It helps set professionals apart from others, provides a sense of trust for clients and potential clients and is based in a rich educational history. When looking for a way to get ahead, continuing education is often an excellent starting point.