Iowa fire departments sent hundreds of volunteer firefighters last week to fire school training, hosted by the Central Iowa Training Association.  PHOTO/KIM FENSTERMAN


By Chase Castle

Hundreds of men and women gathered in Cedar Rapids last weekend for a common and noble calling: learning how to respond to fires.

The training was led by the Central Iowa Training Association (CITA), a nonprofit founded in 1986 with a mission of educating volunteer firefighters. The association celebrated its 30th anniversary on Sept. 24, and continued its yearly training sessions, organized in conjunction with Kirkwood Community College.

With enrollment now estimated around 650 firefighters, mostly volunteers from township fire departments, the program included classes on fire safety, first aid and responding to live fires. It also included a commercial component, with vendors from companies like Reliant Fire Apparatus and California Casualty seeking new clients and showcasing the latest in firefighting technology.

As that technology has evolved, so have expectations for students. The weekend now also addresses demands outside the conventional realm of firefighting, from identifying and responding to methamphetamine labs or even locations suspected of housing human trafficking victims.

“If these firefighters roll onto the scene of an accident and notice that something that doesn’t seem quite right, they’ve got be versed on how to handle a situation like that,” said Kim Fensterman, director of environmental fire and safety under Kirkwood’s Continuing Education and Training Services (CETS) division.

Little of the programming within CETS has the dramatic flare of Kirkwood’s partnership with CITA, but that doesn’t mean its purpose is any less important.

Continuing education at Kirkwood covers a broad array of industries, ranging from health care to industrial technology to art. The Learning Resources Network, an international association of continuing education programs, recently completed a case study that identified CETS as a “model program.”

Since the mid-1990s, CETS has grown from about 35,000 enrollments generating roughly $2.7 million to more than 65,000 enrollments and nearly $9 million. The study noted that the division is not only financially self-sufficient, but also contributes to Kirkwood’s bottom line.

Kim Becicka, vice president of continuing education and outreach services, has been at Kirkwood since 1988, and was last week appointed to a new state leadership council meant to address workforce issues. Featuring representatives from commercial, education, government and community associations, the Sector Partnership Leadership Council appointed by the Iowa Department of Education is expected to build on Kirkwood’s success with its own “sector” partnerships. Kirkwood’s six sectors include more than 90 businesses, with representation in advanced manufacturing, architecture, construction and engineering, financial services, information technology, health care and transportation.

She said part of the program’s success has been the school’s willingness to customize content for employers, which has included small businesses and some of the area’s largest employers.

After identifying development goals, a curriculum is established based on resources, the desired timeline and students, who range from entry-level employees to company executives.

“Many executives, too, are looking to push certain strength areas, or understand their strengths and weaknesses and areas of development,” Ms. Becicka said.

Although courses for academic credit have traditionally been distinct from CE programming, the latter is making inroads that often begin with credentialing or professional certification. Students who receive Kirkwood’s semester-long customer service professional certificate, for example, receive nine academic credits, which could be applied toward an undergraduate degree.

“There are lots of opportunities now for industries to design the educational path that works for them,” Ms. Becicka said.

She acknowledged that some critics within liberal arts education resist allowing employers to play a role in formulating students’ curricula. However, that stigma is significantly smaller than it was 15 years ago, she said.

“I’m not really sensing that as much anymore,” Ms. Becicka said. “Individuals are understanding that not everyone wants to commit to a one-year diploma or two-year degree, then transfer to a four-year degree and do it lock-step.”

The growth of continuing education is hardly unique to Kirkwood or even the Corridor, however.

In the fall of 2014, of 31,387 students enrolled at the University of Iowa, 2,343 were distance students. Those enrollments represented just one segment of the UI’s Division of Continuing Education, which is largely intended for professionals or students unable to take classes on-campus.

Along with its fellow regent institutions, the UI is working with its academic colleges to deliver continuing education courses and certificates, which includes programming in areas such as marketing, data and applications, and exam services.

The school offers CE programming on its flagship campus in Iowa City, as well as at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory Regents Center in Milford, the Pappajohn Education Center in Des Moines, and locations in Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

CE innovation

Beyond continuing education, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that enrollment in degree-granting, postsecondary institutions is greater than it was 10 years ago, and predicts historic highs in enrollment over the next decade.

Entangled Solutions, a San Francisco-based higher education consultant, published a report last month that said continuing education programs will play an increased role in addressing that demand, which comes amid increased operating costs and low levels of state and federal funding.

“Few universities have the general operating structure in place to drive innovation at this scale and therefore must rely on their continuing education schools to lead the charge,” the report said.

The report also praised continuing education programs for their ability to experiment without the regulations governing most universities. With less restrictive procurement systems and fewer political pressures, many continuing education programs more closely resemble a startup than a nascent academic program.

In order to increase access for low-income students and amp up enrollment, many continuing education programs are also getting creative with funding streams.

At the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at Loyola University Chicago, for example, offers a tuition-matching program that effectively doubles the financial contribution committed through a student’s employer tuition assistance program up to $5,250, in addition to state and federal aid.