NORAM - Ebook

American Universities and the Case for Lifelong Learning

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NEW HORIZONS: AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES AND THE CASE FOR LIFELONG LEARNING 3 OVERVIEW The year of the coronavirus pandemic augurs many changes in American society, everything from how and where we work to how we take care of our elderly population. But perhaps, more than anything else, this year has turned our system of learning upside down, with far-reaching implications that are difficult to gauge at this early stage. The overriding educational story of this year has been the hasty shift from in-person teaching to almost exclusively digital learning for thousands of k-12 institutions and colleges, and millions of their students. Those changes have been significant and disorienting for many, and have understandably occupied the attention of parents, students and the media alike. But the biggest changes in education stemming from this year may, in the long run, prove not to be for k-12 or for college-age students, but for adult learners. The pandemic accelerated an already rising need for adult educational programming and also opened the eyes of many adults to the opportunities afforded by digital learning platforms. Unlike the k-12 and college systems, however, which have clear and established pathways and institutional players, the educational systems serving adult learners are somewhat less than a system, and more a patchwork of community colleges, for- profit universities, associations and companies. Because of this, credentials earned at one institution are often not transferable to another, and a lack of standardization means that disparate credentials often do not "stack" up to more valuable academic certificates or degrees. This hampers the critical needs of lifelong learners. This paper outlines the important and growing needs of adult learners, amplified by the pandemic, and discusses the opportunities and reasons for America's colleges and universities to expand their mission in support of workforce development and lifelong learning. BACKGROUND The concept of an organized national approach to adult learning and workforce development dates back in the United States to the New Deal. Over the last two decades, the demand for adult learning has spiked for a number of reasons. Greater longevity has meant longer and more varied careers, and a resulting need for continuous learning as workers attempt to ensure their marketability. Technology change has also displaced millions of workers, raising the need for reskilling both displaced workers and still-employed workers trying to keep their skills current and competitive. And finally, as adults live longer, and as the connection between lifelong learning and late life health has become clearer, more retirees and near retirees have sought educational opportunity. However, in our interviews, experts told us that the advancement of adult learning has been hampered by inconsistent federal policy, the lack of clear standards and pathways, and by the fact that adult learning has been driven by a jumble of public and private organizations, some of which have had, at best, a checkered history of effectiveness.

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