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John Seely Brown, the former director of the legendary Xerox PARC laboratory, famously wrote in 2011 that the half-life of a skill is five years (and shrinking). This means that half of what we learn today will become obsolete five years from now. This idea is getting a lot of attention among higher education leaders, who must plan for a future in which students will need to keep learning new skills ever more frequently after they graduate.

The advent of continual reskilling on higher education institutions will be felt most acutely by the graduate professional education segment, which has traditionally been structured around traditional one- and two-year master’s degree programs. Says author and consultant Jeff Selingo, “Workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now, when it often takes months or years to complete certificates and degrees.”

As these trends crystallize, and professional education becomes unbundled and more transactional, universities can compete by focusing on the uniqueness of what we really offer: the deep relationship students build with us through their interactions with faculty, advisers, peers and professional networks. We must realize that we are in the relationship business; degree and certificate programs represent only a small part of the value we offer (and the one most likely to be disrupted by competition). I suggest below some concrete steps for universities to foster lifelong relationships to become the central hub to which students return as their life needs change.

The Shift to On-Demand Learning

Much has been written about the potential decline in demand for traditional one- and two-year master’s programs in favor of short-term microcredentials. This has enabled all sorts of new players to claim a stake in the professional education market. Examples include skill-based boot-camp providers like General Assembly, on-campus adjunct packagers like Trilogy and a dizzying array of education platforms, from Coursera and edX to Udemy and Pluralsight. At the same time that many traditional colleges struggle to stay financially afloat, private investors are busy pouring millions of dollars into alternative professional education start-ups.

When industries undergo such dislocations, power often shifts from incumbent players to such intermediaries and platforms, who end up owning the relationship with the customer and controlling the flow of revenues. The plight of newspapers is a case in point. When things went digital, the emergence of alternative news sources (e.g., blogs, Twitter) and the rise of news-aggregator platforms (e.g., Google News) left all but the very best news outlets commoditized and financially struggling. What Amazon did to retailers is another cautionary tale.

A university’s strongest asset is the deep bond that we form with our students -- through our faculty, guidance counselors, student activities organizations, corporate partners, career counseling consultants and alumni organizations.

Graduate professional university education is faced with a future that has many of the same ingredients: unbundling of its core offerings, emergence of well-funded and agile alternative providers and the rise of education platforms. Is higher education bound to suffer what has happened to journalism and retail?

How Graduate Education Can Win Out: From Transactions to Relationships

Fortunately, there is one fundamental difference between news and education. Whereas news is based on content, education is fundamentally a complex set of relationships that encompass content/knowledge, mentoring and community. Whereas content can be commoditized, good relationships tend to be sticky and hard to replace.

A university’s strongest asset is the deep bond that we form with our students -- through our faculty, guidance counselors, student activities organizations, corporate partners, career counseling consultants and alumni organizations. These relationships are built around course work, of course, but also include a substantial amount of mentoring and life coaching, as well as immersion in campus activities and peer networks. We do a reasonably good job of offering such a multifaceted life-changing experience to our undergraduate students.

At the graduate professional education level, however, many universities seem to forget that we are in the relationship business and behave as if we are simple content/knowledge providers. We charge students for course credits. We advertise our graduate programs essentially as if they were products. When our students graduate, we bid them farewell and subsequently contact them primarily for donations. This transactional way of thinking and acting leaves universities vulnerable to disruption.

Universities should strive to do more than simply offer the new-style programs and credentials that 21st-century lifelong learners need to stay current. We should capitalize on the life-changing relationships we form with our undergraduate students and continue them after they leave our campuses. We should promise such a relationship to any learner who joins our university family at any stage of their life and career.

Imagine an infrastructure that blends human mentors and artificial intelligence, harnessing the rich information universities collect about their students and alumni to offer them personalized career and continuing education guidance.

Lifelong learners do not just need to “consume learning in short spurts when they need it.” They also need lifelong advice about when it might be time to consider a change of career direction and, if so, how to best prepare for the next stage of their journey. They can derive value from staying connected to networks of fellow alumni, faculty and current students. Universities have a unique opportunity to become our learners’ hub of knowledge, mentoring and networking for life. Such a relationship is much more difficult to commoditize than one based on content/knowledge alone.

New Models Open New Possibilities

Georgia Institute of Technology recently published the results of a three-year study by a Commission on Creating the Next in Education. Pointing to the resulting report, Rafael L. Bras, Georgia Tech’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, suggests a model in which the university becomes “a touchpoint throughout the student’s life.”

A key outcome of the commission’s work, called the Georgia Tech Commitment, suggests that “the successful universities will be those which invest in the pipeline to help students acquire and renew skills not only through formalized degrees and credentials but with programs, products, and services that are relevant and valuable throughout their lifetimes.”

We are at the very early stages of translating such a vision into practice. However, here are some thoughts on what needs to be done:

  • Set the stage during the undergraduate years. Our undergraduate students should be taught to view their campus experience as the prelude to a lifelong relationship with the university and its alumni networks. We must provide gateways for them to access relationships that provide ongoing coaching and lifetime mentorship. We need to train them to be proactive mentees. One effective starting point for the university is to offer our current students practical opportunities to connect with alumni for career networking, experiential projects and ongoing coaching.
  • Adapt our graduate education offerings to serve the lifelong learner population. Our graduate schools should be given assistance and incentives to experiment with unbundling their degree programs and offering shorter, blended learning programs that lead to valued workplace credentials. As we collectively explore this new space, we should nurture a culture of experimentation and controlled risk taking with tolerance for failure.
  • Offer technology-enabled lifelong mentoring to all our alumni. Imagine an infrastructure that blends human mentors and artificial intelligence, harnessing the rich information universities collect about their students and alumni to offer them personalized career and continuing education guidance. If we do things right, this infrastructure might even be in a position to predict, before our alumni know it themselves, that a person’s career is in jeopardy and that it is time to start preparing for something different. We can then offer that graduate a personalized plan of action that may involve taking reskilling courses at our (and/or other) institution(s), leveraging the networks we mediate and potentially other interventions.
  • Engage alumni in multiple ways. In most universities, alumni relations is a function that is kept distinct from academics and has fund-raising as its primary focus. For alumni/lifelong learners to become an integral part of a university community, we need to better integrate them with all parts of the university. Alumni will remain potential donors, of course, but they can be so much more: students in our lifelong learning programs, mentors and recruiters of our younger students and peers, sponsors or clients of experiential learning projects, and even instructors or teaching assistants for specialized courses that draw upon their unique expertise. The sky is the limit. We need to reflect on how our structures and processes can evolve to enable such multifaceted engagement.
  • Consider alternative business models. Our current business model of charging graduate students by the credit hour reflects the premise that our primary value comes from content/knowledge. As we transform the university into a hub of lifelong value-added relationships, we should consider business models that align better with that reality. Several people have mentioned a subscription model. Income-share agreements and payments from employers for successful learner placements are two other ideas that members of our industry are experimenting with. We need to be open to exploring creative possibilities in this dynamic space.

The original meaning of the word “alumnus” in Latin is “foster child.” In a world where students never really graduate, the role of the university is to take lifelong care of them, as we would take care of our true foster children. The transformation is not going to be easy: it will involve change in the way we handle everything, from academics to career counseling and alumni relations. But it is going to both better serve 21st-century learners and, ultimately, leave our institutions stronger in the face of a potentially disruptive future.

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