• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

Who, What, for How Long?

If we're entering the age of a 60-year curriculum, we will need to do some things differently.

February 26, 2020

There are trends under way which, taken collectively, signal the coming of a three-dimensional space in which postsecondary learning will occur. Consider the answers to these three questions.

  • Whom are we educating?
  • What do they need to know?
  • How long will they need our support and services?

People are living longer and birth rates are flattening. So, the student population, if it is going to expand on campus, at work or elsewhere, is aging. Technology is creating new jobs and skill sets at the same time it permeates existing jobs and drives skill changes there as well. That suggests several things.

  • First, the demand for a qualified workforce will continue to outstrip the supply and will, in all likelihood, worsen if we don’t change the way we develop and sustain the workforce.
  • Second, people will need upskilling to hold on to their jobs and reskilling to switch careers as old jobs go away and new ones appear.
  • And third, if that is the case, people will need continuous access to education and training with career, vocational and technical courses that meet their needs and their employers’ requirements.

If someone had suggested such a thing as a 60-year curriculum to me 20 years ago, I would have scoffed at the notion. Learning throughout life was a good thing, to be sure. But a necessity? Not likely. Yet here we are today looking at exactly that need and that reality.

Purposeful learning throughout life to sustain economic well-being is now a necessity and will become even more of one for millions of people. I see at least three groups that will need the 60-year curriculum: those currently marginalized economically and underserved educationally, members of the workforce who will need to reskill or upskill to survive, and older Americans who, instead of retiring, seek a blend of senior life and continued employment in new roles.

And before we slide back into the traditional mind-set that meeting these needs is their problem, we must recognize that it is society’s problem as well. We need the previously underserved and marginalized in the economy and the social and civic life of the country to prosper as a civil society. And, without a workforce that is aligned with the ever-evolving requirements for work, our economy will suffer along with other aspects of American life. To sum it up, with a flattening birth rate and ever-changing job market, we need everyone participating productively in the social, civic and economic life of the country and their community if we are going to survive.

The three-dimensional space for postsecondary education I mentioned above is framed by 1) new and ever-changing content to meet changing requirements, 2) a 60-year mind-set for access and service, and 3) learners as diverse in all respects as the larger society.

And these characteristics will require an end to the opportunity monopoly that campus-based programs inadvertently created. Happily, if we all respond productively, the market for postsecondary learning that is developing will be enormous and ongoing.

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Peter Smith

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