Continuing education requirements in the US: An overview
As licensed professionals and regulators will know, continuing education is a critical element of the licensing process. Why do we have continuing education requirements? Who pays for it? And what lies in store for continuing education in the future?

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Most regulated professions require a certain level of education to obtain a license. Professionals in more specialized fields, however, can also find themselves required to submit proof of continuing education for re-licensure. Continuing education can be defined as any additional relevant education undertaken by a professional after receiving their initial license. Practitioners commonly required to continue their education include lawyers, teachers, accountants, nurses, engineers, psychologists, and pharmacists.

Regulators will often audit professionals randomly to ensure they meet their continuing education requirements. The Oregon State Board of Nursing, for example, audits candidates for re-licensing by asking a certain percentage of them to submit certificates of completion for continuing education courses. Many state medical boards will audit up to 25% of physicians under their purview every year to ensure compliance.

The debate over whether continuing education should be voluntary or mandatory goes back decades. In general, the early 1970s marked the first push for professionals to undergo mandatory additional training. In 1970, for example, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education recommended recertification for doctors and dentists to “minimize educational obsolescence.” In 1971, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants pushed for states to adopt continuing education requirements for re-licensure.

Today, regulators of many specialized professions across the U.S. require professionals to continue their development and education, with penalties like fees and license revocations reserved for non-compliers. Though every industry has its own process for completing and submitting proof of continuing education, a number of common practices and measurements have emerged to quantify the amount of training professionals receive.

What does continuing education look like?

Because different states uphold different continuing education requirements for different professions, a unit of measurement known as the “contact hour” has emerged as a standardized way to gauge the amount of education a professional receives. A contact hour indicates 50-60 minutes of organized learning in an educational environment. One continuing education unit (CEU) is generally earned by completing 10 contact hours.

Nursing

Nursing is one of the most notable professions in which practitioners use contact hours to count continuing education credits. New Hampshire’s Board of Nursing, for example, requires that registered nurses (RN) and licensed practical nurses (LPN) complete 30 contact hours in the two years immediately prior to re-certification. States like Colorado, Connecticut, and Indiana, on the other hand, do not uphold any continuing education requirements for nurses.

The state of Florida provides an example of more rigorous and specific continuing education requirements for nurses. Both RNs and LPNs are on a 24-month renewal cycle in the state, during which they must complete one contact hour of continuing education for every month in the cycle. Specifically, this includes two hours of education on the prevention of medical errors, two hours on domestic violence, and one hour on the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Law

In 2001, the American Bar Association established its model rule for Continuing Legal Education (CLE). The association itself offers a wide range of training programs designed to meet the needs of lawyers in every specialization. Though different states have differing requirements for submitting proof of CLE, the penalty throughout the U.S. for non-compliance remains essentially the same: a reinstatement fee that can range from $150 to $500.

Continuing legal education follows a rule of measurement similar to that in the nursing professions. The ABA website specifies that “states determine CLE credit hours by dividing the running time of instructional programs by either 60 or 50 minutes. For example, a 90-minute program may earn 1.5 hours of CLE credit in a state that bases its credit on a 60-minute credit hour, and 1.8 hours in a state that bases its credit on a 50-minute credit hour.”

Who pays for continuing education?

Payment and funding for continuing education have historically been a point of contention between professionals and employers. In the medical professions, employers often provide continuing education allowances for nurses and physicians to fund their training. In the field of teaching, while many schools (as employers) may reimburse teachers for tuition costs, professionals are still often required to pay for their own continuing education.

Many companies and educational institutions, like the New York State Nurses Association, have attempted to handle the issue of payment by offering free or low-cost courses to professionals seeking recertification. Some hospitals offer in-house training and education, like the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, which also offers reimbursement for exam fees to nurses, provided they pass their exams. As of 2013, the hospital also offered up to $250 per year in educational allowances for RNs and licensed vocational nurses.

In an opinion letter published in 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) clarifies that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), professionals are entitled to compensation from their employers if they complete educational requirements during work hours. The letter suggests that employers can explicitly forbid taking classes during work hours if they want to avoid paying professionals for this time, but it also recommends that companies allow employees to use paid time for education if the education is required or relevant to the profession.

The future of continuing education

Continuing education requirements can be an effective way for regulators to ensure professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and practices in their industries. Professionals may have to pay for continuing education out-of-pocket, but many employers and educational institutions offer low-cost courses and tuition reimbursement to mitigate these expenses. As more specialized professions continue to emerge, regulators can be expected to establish and uphold continuing education requirements to guarantee high levels of proficiency in their fields.

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Jordan Milian
Written byJordan Milian
Jordan Milian is a writer covering government regulation and occupational licensing for Ascend, with a professional background in journalism and marketing.

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