A better model for continuing education

The process of becoming educated is largely seen as a single stage in life. Starting in grade school and continuing until high school or college or through the process of earning an advanced degree, education is seen as a discrete process. Once a terminal degree has been earned, the formal learning portion of our lives is largely over.

During a time when individuals would enter the workforce and then stay with a single company – or at least within the same industry – for decades, this model may have made more sense. But today, as our economy faces great disruption with the evolution of automation and the changing nature of the workforce, this model makes little sense.

To succeed in the economy of the next generation, workers will have to constantly be learning, developing new skills, and adapting to the evolving workforce. Workers will increasingly enter new fields and change industries faster than previous generations changed jobs. A model in which individuals are trained for a single first job will be wholly insufficient for an economy undergoing such tremendous change.
Postsecondary education shouldn’t be a destination. It should be a lifelong process in which continuous education continues for a lifetime.

Innovation can come from many sources. For one, the model of postsecondary education could change. One novel idea is for individuals to become lifelong members of colleges and universities in which they still attend post-high school, but can continue to take courses throughout their lives. Understanding that it is simply not feasible for the vast majority of professionals to take two or three years off to get another degree and that as one gets older, family obligations may also make it challenging, if not impossible, to uproot a family for stretches of time, colleges and universities can take advantage of online or blended programs. And more practically, colleges and universities could offer more short term training programs that would provide a breadth of knowledge and exposure to ideas, but be completable within a shorter period of time, such as certificate programs or microcredentials.

The business community can also encourage continuous learning. By offering annual education and training allowances, providing dedicated work time for educational activities, and through partnerships with local or online colleges and universities, companies can make it easier for their employees to pursue additional education, while also helping to cover or defer costs. Many companies are already instituting these types of policies, and they have proven to increase employee retention and overall job satisfaction – and not just among the employees that take advantage of these benefits, but among all employees.

The economy is changing rapidly and the pace at which it will continue to evolve will only increase over the next few decades. We cannot remain educationally frozen in time if our workers are to succeed and if our economy is to expand. We need to adopt the practice of lifelong learning and build a community of lifelong learners.

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