Extend Your Education: Lifelong Learning Is the New Reality for a Successful Career

"We aren’t standing still anymore. And neither can our education."

“I was seeking an accelerated course of study…” – Hamilton, an American musical

Not long ago in the history of the American worker, the gold standard of success was employment at the same place for 30 years, followed by a full pension by 55. 

Not anymore. We’re undergoing a changing social contract between workers and employers. Employees are less loyal, turnover is high, and organizations don’t have time or will to invest in employee development. We’re migrating from company to company and city to city. Some of us are hybrid or 100 percent remote workers. We aren’t standing still anymore. And neither can our education.

The traditional arc of K-12 plus a four-year degree isn’t cutting it (and at that, only 32 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree). As Kay Rothman, director of college counseling at NYC Lab School put it: “One of the biggest challenges in education today is an ideological disagreement over whether we should focus on getting every student accepted to a four-year college or whether we should place far more emphasis on career preparation. The truth is, we need to do both — and the problem is, we’re not doing either one very well.”

Undoubtedly, an undergraduate degree remains the best indicator of long-term professional success. But planning for lifelong learning is a must, and non-traditional educational options -- professional certificate programs, boot camps and trade schools -- are helping workers quickly and affordably cultivate skills. It’s time we re-think the timeline of education and embrace a “60-year curriculum,” where education is weaved like a tapestry throughout our lives. That’s our focus at UW Continuum College: providing the right education for the right learner at the right time.

It's our challenge in the continuing education space to throw the doors wide open. Here are three areas of focus:

  1. Align to business needs. Industry experts need a voice in creating programs in high-skill, in-demand job areas. At UW, each of our 85 certificate programs maintains an advisory board from the Seattle business community. Members help us concept new certificates and develop curriculum and alert us to up-and-coming skill needs. An example: If you got your degree even five years ago, it’s unlikely you took one course on machine learning. Today it’s one of the most sought after technical skills. Thanks to our advisory board, we now offer many certificates to support artificial intelligence, including data science, data analytics, and Python programming.

  2. Be available and flexible. We must make programs available in more formats, to meet busy adults where they live and work. This is the spirit of our Career Accelerator program in which we offer our most in-demand certificates in four formats: classroom, online, accelerated and self-paced. We’ve seen an enrollment increase of 65 percent over last year, surpassing our best expectations. And Career Accelerator was recently recognized by the University of Professional Continuing Education Association.

  3. Give back. Breaking down barriers to continuing education and helping ignite a change in a student’s career is a top priority. For the second year, we’re providing financial assistance through the UW Certificate Scholarship Program, helping adult learners from across the state with a gift covering 80 percent to 100 percent of course fees. Partnerships with respected regional companies and institutions like BECU and the Windermere Foundation are helping us extend more scholarships.

The question of whether higher education should focus on degrees or skills-based learning is not either/or. It's increasingly both/and. In my own career, I have experienced the value of both types of curricula, which I undertook at different stages of my professional development. As we think about the workforce of the future – and, even of the "now" -- our job is to make sure that we are making lifelong learning relevant, affordable and attainable.

Rovy Branon is vice provost for University of Washington Continuum College. Since 1912, UW Continuum College has provided innovative learning paths and now serves more than 50,000 students a year in Seattle and around the globe.

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