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Lifelong Learning: The Evolving Future of Higher Education

The path to higher education is becoming a choose-your-own-adventure. The demands of the new economy will lead adults back to the classroom for a host of reasons.

1/23/2020 | Going Back to School | 6 minute read

Picture of Rebecca Bakken
Written By:
Rebecca Bakken

Traditionally, a person could expect to work in the same field, using essentially the same skills, for 40 years. Today, however, the landscape looks strikingly different.

“The employee of the future typically will have a new job every five years, probably for 60 to 80 years, and probably every one of those will require skills you did not learn in college,” said Huntington D. Lambert, the former dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, in a recent New York Times article.

To meet the demands of this new job market, higher education is evolving to embrace what’s being called the 60-year curriculum.

The New Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is hardly a new concept. Community classes and professional development workshops have always been available to people who want to learn or sharpen skills. And they’re not going anywhere.

What’s new is an ever-growing necessity to engage in learning opportunities that will support the many shifts you may take throughout your career.

We are in the midst of what economist Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has named the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid advancement of technology is causing major disruption to the job market in nearly every industry.

“If you think about the nature of the jobs, they're quite different than they were historically. And in fact, you're going to have to continue your education. Not just skills development, but real knowledge learning over as long as 60 years,” said Lambert in a video interview.



Colleges and universities are reassessing the traditional educational model and evolving to meet the needs of today’s learners. They offer a variety of programs to reskill or upskill, from two-day noncredit workshops to graduate certificates to flexible online master’s degrees.

While the typical educational path may once have looked like four years of college followed perhaps by a few years of graduate school, very soon, the idea of a “typical education” may be obsolete.

New Pathways for Education

This new curriculum isn’t delivered continuously, the way four-year programs have traditionally operated. Instead, students choose what kind of education or training is right for them as they need it.

While working or in-between careers, it’s common for people to decide they need to gain a competitive edge, which is best done by learning or improving skills. Options for this new educational model may include:

  • Enrolling in online courses to earn a graduate certificate or degree
  • Joining workshops or evening classes to gain competency in a skill required for a promotion or a career pivot
  • Taking free MOOCs (massive open online courses) to gauge interest in a new field
  • Pursuing self-guided learning through reading, online courses, in-person seminars, etc.

The new lifelong learner isn’t a single persona. They can be someone who entered the job market right after high school and goes back to school a decade later to earn a degree. They can also be a Ph.D. holder looking to improve soft skills after years in their field.

With a growing necessity to upskill or reskill and the proliferation of ways to do so, continuing education is quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception.

You Control Your Education

The path to higher education is becoming a choose-your-own-adventure. While historically adults returned to school to finish a degree or pursue graduate studies, the demands of the new economy will lead them back to the classroom for a host of reasons.

Far from feeling like the only grownup in the room, today’s adult students can be confident not only in what their life experience brings to the table but also in the knowledge that they are ahead of the curve, learning on the front lines of the educational revolution.

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