As more adults than ever before enroll in postsecondary education programs and a variety of players—from bootcamps to online and mobile course providers—offer options tailored to match adults’ work and family circumstance, traditional colleges and universities have struggled to keep pace.

Yet there’s no reason why traditional schools can’t catch up. Those with a continuing education program have a valuable asset they should leverage as their hub of innovation to improve opportunities not just for adults but for all students.

Because of their mission and relative autonomy on university campuses, continuing education programs—in the form of extension schools and schools of continuing and professional education—are well-positioned to experiment with different student-centered learning models, create innovative programs that generate new revenue streams, and build bridges with industry partners.

Continuing education programs arose in the 19th century to meet the critical workforce and social needs of the time. As my Entangled Solutions colleagues Amber Laxton, Yury Lifshits, and I write in a new report, 10 Trends Ahead for Continuing Education, continuing education programs are an ideal place to not only test new ideas, but also launch new programs. Most continuing education programs remain relatively autonomous from the existing processes and priorities that govern the traditional university.

In particular, continuing education programs are less regulated, more responsive to industry and consumer needs, have less restrictive budget policies and procurement systems, operate under lower political pressure, and are often infused with the “startup mentality” that is critical for responding to and pioneering disruptive innovations.

Indeed, this autonomy has been a distinctive feature since their beginnings. In Wisconsin in 1912, Charles McCarthy, the founder of the Legislative Reference Library and a strong advocate of Extension education, wrote glowingly of his experiences with the Wisconsin Extension Division and deliberately contrasted it with the “aristocratic” tendencies of traditional higher education. As a history of the University of Wisconsin-Extension relates, “McCarthy credited the Division’s success, in part, to its distinctive features: a faculty, an administration, and an appropriation of its own.”

But universities must take full advantage of this autonomy or risk being overtaken by the emerging number of alternative education providers. Universities must view their continuing education schools as a key part of their overall innovation strategy—such that these programs are empowered not only to innovate on the side, but to leverage strategic investments and grow, even if that means displacing traditional university programs in some cases.

In the report we discuss 10 trends and opportunities that will define the leading continuing education programs of the future—from supporting on-demand learning to offering creative financing options, from adopting competency-based learning models to partnering with companies to create custom employee training programs, improve career services, and even establish a new credentialing system.

The good news is that many continuing education programs are building on their legacies and stepping up.

MOOCs are not the only ones that offer on-demand learning today. The Colorado University-Boulder Continuing Education offers traditional online self-paced programs with rolling registration; students can begin at any time and complete programs in as little as two weeks or as much as six months.

The School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) at Loyola University Chicago is innovating in the arena of creative financing options, as it offers a generous tuition-matching program that doubles the financial contribution committed through employer tuition assistance programs. The SCPS Fellows Program matches an employer’s tuition contribution up to $5,250 per academic year for qualifying students. In addition to funds awarded through the program, students may also apply for state and federal aid.

Competency-based education has become a hot trend in recent years, and it is no coincidence that one of the few direct assessment programs that the Department of Education has approved is at a continuing education school. The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option offers a competency-based program that focuses on learning, not class time. It allows students to start when they want, move through the program at their own pace, earn credit for what they already know, and advance in the program as they master competencies.

And just as universities have seen international students as a key way to maintain revenues and bolster their global brand, so too will continuing education programs find future growth overseas. Adult international students, in particular, are attracted to non-degree programs because they are cheaper and shorter. They offer comprehensive visa support, particularly for Optional Practical Training (OPT) opportunities, which have increased in importance as the H1B route has become more competitive. UC Santa Cruz Extension’s international program, for example, offers full-time certificate programs to students from over 30 countries. With a new permanent presence in Silicon Valley, UCSC Extension connects its international students with internships and OPT opportunities at local companies. The program is also opening a new training center to provide English language instruction to non-native speakers and language learners.

Even as universities work through turbulent times, continuing education programs sit in an enviable position on their campuses. There’s a growing constituency of adult learners hungry to acquire new skills through new programs, which gives schools a license to innovate. Now it’s time for universities to seize that initiative and invest accordingly in the efforts at their continuing education programs.

This piece was originally published on EdSurge.

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  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.