When I conducted my first continuing education seminar through Cal State Los Angeles, we had a magnificent crowd show up.
I think the grand total, including those I solicited personally, came to 6 or 7 people.
And our session was a smash hit.
Okay, something's wrong with this picture-is that what you're thinking? How can a turnout of six or seven be considered even a marginal success?
I felt it was a big winner because:
(1) It was the first time I had conducted a seminar on that topic;
(2) Those that attended were happy with the class. They enjoyed it and said they'd recommend it to others;
(3) Despite the enrollments, the school recovered its costs, made a small surplus and I received a modest honorarium for conducting it; and
(4) The class was heuristic, spawning several books and related seminars and consulting paradigms.
Could the class have been even better? Of course, and it improved with time, eliciting nearly perfect evaluations from participants across the country.
Could the registrations have been more numerous? Absolutely, and the very next time I ran the class, in Terre Haute, Indiana, we had a turnout of approximately 45 people. The ABC-TV affiliate even did a remote segment from the seminar site, interviewing me after the program concluded.
So, those initial registrations were not at all related to the quality or even to the potential drawing power of the course.
They were, at best, preliminary results, and if I had placed undue importance on their number, insisting, a priori, that a class had to have 15 or 20 bodies in it to be meritorious, I probably wouldn't have had the temerity to offer it again. And that would have been a disappointment to the thousands of people that subsequently found great value in it.
The concept that course enrollments correlate with course quality is fundamentally flawed. In the private sector we need to cover our costs and then have enough left over to defray the cost of capital and deliver a profit.
But university continuing education providers, despite operating under legislative mandates to be self-supporting, mustn't use profit, or as they call it, a surplus, to be the crucial element in determining their course offerings.
There are several reasons I say this:
(1) Simply put, university personnel are not capable of earning a consistent profit. Administrators and staff are notoriously risk-averse and untrained in entrepreneurial methods. Another way of putting it is they don't have what Dr. Sidney Lecker called "The Money Personality." A masterful promoter of seminars in the private sector once told me, "Universities offer some great classes, but they simply don't know how to market them. They'll send out a few hundred brochures when they should be mailing 100,000."
(2) The university is a place dedicated, in substantial part, to intellectual and pedagogical experimentation. As Peter F. Drucker pointed out, new knowledge-based ventures need to be protected, nurtured, and sheltered, and they cannot be expected to turn an instant profit. When they're pressured to succeed right away, they are crushed.
(3) The profit motive distorts the overall goals of education. For example, we know that classroom size is inversely correlated with learning: the larger the group, the less people come away with a positive and deep learning experience. But if we're seeking profits, we'll try to fill the room with paying customers, short-changing them on learning.
(4) Learning is a multi-way process, though we myopically believe the main mission of most universities is to develop students. Faculty need to be cultivated, as well, and their skills are improved by pursuing new knowledge, and then by presenting it and having it be critiqued and built upon. Without the advent of new courses, however obscure some may seem initially, we wouldn't enjoy many of the breakthroughs that emerge from them.
At present, most universities don't have a sensible protocol for determining which "struggling" classes to offer the second time. Typically, continuing with a class is a function of the number of first-time enrollments and scores on student evaluations.
But under what circumstances should administrators sense when to give a class a second chance to find its audience? When should they resolve to promote a class more vigorously, or to simply let it be conducted with less than a full house because its content is new, its instructor is uniquely credentialed, experienced, or especially meritorious?
These are educational, not commercial decisions.
Administrators and legislators that authorize continuing education budgets should
define what makes a class a success with great insight and sensitivity, realizing the raw number of enrollments is not a comprehensive, convincing, or final measure.
Dr. Gary S. Goodman is a top trainer, conference and convention speaker, and sales, customer service, and negotiation consultant. A frequent expert commentator on radio and TV, he is also the best-selling author of 12 books, more than 1,000 articles and several popular audio and video programs. His seminars are sponsored internationally and he is a faculty member at more than 40 universities, including UC Berkeley and UCLA. Gary's sales, management and consulting experience is combined with impressive academic credentials: A Ph.D. from USC, an MBA from the Peter F. Drucker School of Management, and a J.D. degree from Loyola Law School, his clients include several Fortune 1000 companies.
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