Forward Thinking

Fool’s Gold

Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or continuing education credits are often mistaken for the primary reason why attendees go to conferences. They're important- but no longer the main attraction.

Since CEUs are public domain, there are no mandated guidelines for instruction or learning activities. And there’s a preponderance of information and online education programs available today for people to receive CEUs or credit, from reading an article and passing a short quiz (as is the case with Convene‘s monthly CMP Series), to listening to a podcast, attending a webinar, or participating in a selfpaced online course. It’s not a stretch to say CEUs have been commoditized.

Then there is the issue of price, which is all over the board. From my independent research, I’ve found that some organizations charge $50 to $85 per hour of instruction, with the average for trade associations with multiple hours of education and supplemental trade-show revenue in the $20-to-$30- per-hour range.

Online CEU options are often offered for as little as $5 per course hour, or even free of charge. In fact, MIT is offering free education online to anyone who wants to take advantage of its program. Participants can’t earn a degree, but those who demonstrate a mastery of the subject taught will receive an official certificate of completion.

These alternatives to receiving credits via conference attendance drive down the value of premium face-to-face education. Conference organizers that market CEUs or education credits as their main value proposition are not going to be able to maintain registration prices.

And the CEU becomes nothing more than fool’s gold.

CEU Reality Check

Since no government or private agency is charged with setting and enforcing mandatory credentialing standards, the good news is that any organization is free to develop credentialing programs when, how, and for whom it wants. The bad news is that it is incredibly confusing for everyone, since the terminology is applied inconsistently. (See Breakout, at left, for some clarification on terms.)

Another challenge with continuing education programs is that there is not one set of industry standards to guide program development and administration. There are myriad self-appointed organizations, including ANSI, CLEAR, and IACET, each claiming to be the official standard for credentialing. They all require membership as well as ongoing evaluation, regular site visits, maintenance of credentialing records, and ongoing annual fees to distribute their trademarked credentialing requirements.

ASAE’s “Decision to Learn” research, released in 2010, indicated that the higher the level of education that people have, the less likely they are to pursue certification. In other words, the more educated your attendees are, the less likely they want to attend conferences to obtain CEUs.

Similarly, ASAE’s study found that it’s those individuals who are self-employed who are more likely to be certified or seek certification. Professionals in the public sector or from corporations do not feel the same need to attend conference education programs in order to receive CEUs. I have yet to find an organization whose own research proves that CEU acquisition is a major conference draw. In reality, it’s the opposite. Often the ratio of participants involved in pursuing certification is less than 10 percent.

Turning Off Attendees

And sometimes the focus on CEU detracts from the overall quality of the program, instead of offering content that solves attendees’ problems, conference organizers settle on education that simply fulfills certification requirements. When a conference marketing campaign makes gaining CEUs the main takeaway, it may even turn off prospective attendees. Instead, conference marketing should hype the fact that solutions are being offered, not certification credits!

CEUs do become “golden handcuffs” when a government agency has mandatory requirements for a profession to receive annual CEUs to maintain a licensure. But that’s the only time that the CEU may be a magnet for attendees, and even then, there are numerous free-to-low-cost options available that don’t require additional travel expenses or premium registration fees.

Terminology Lesson

is an umbrella term most often used to describe various types of formal recognition programs, including accreditation, certification, certificate programs, and licensure.

is a volunteer process whereby a third-party organization grants recognition to an organization, system, or program after verifying that it has met predetermined criteria.

A certification
is a voluntary process in which an organization grants recognition to an individual after that individual has met eligibility criteria, including demonstrating a minimal degree of competency, possessing a specific number of years of experience and a minimum level of education, and passing an assessment.

A certificate
program is an education program that does not provide a degree. It is usually a series of education sessions designed to achieve a specific scope with designated learning outcomes. Upon verifying that specific requirements were met and usually after the individual has passed some type of evaluation, the certificate is awarded.

A licensure
is when a governmental agency or its designated agent grants recognition to an individual after verifying that the individual has met eligibility criteria, including demonstrating a minimal degree of competency and passing an assessment. To maintain the license, the individual has to meet ongoing requirements such as CEUs, renewal fees, and retesting. Licensure is a legal mandate.

More Resources

The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education provides a basic understanding of CME at

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.