How the ’60-year curriculum’ impacts university leaders

As human lives head toward 100, colleges and universities have an opportunity to help build skills for a more expansive pool of students looking to start and restart their educations

Andrew Scott, a professor at the London Business School and co-author of the book “The 100-year Life”, noted during the recent ASU-GSV Summit that people not only will continue to live longer, but also will be working significantly longer.

“If you do the math and you are going into your 90s or 100s, you will have to have a 50-to 60-year career,” he says. “If you’re in your mid-40s, that means you’ve got more work to go than you’ve done already, which is a pretty sobering thought.”

The now-passe dream of a three-stage life – adolescence, career and retirement – has been all but kicked to the curb as forces in society and in the workplace alter the path of the modern-day career seeker. Shifts in priorities have also started to affect higher education, as both the COVID-19 pandemic and the wave of digital innovation before it have forced the acceleration of new ideas and new ways of instructing to meet student needs.

In fact, Scott’s colleague and Harvard professor Chris Dede, has proposed that the changes on the horizon and the extension of human life will lead to “The 60-year Curriculum”, the title of his book and the notion that more education will be far more necessary in the future … albeit looking a bit different.

“It’s not just that people are living longer, but the rate of change and disruption in society is going to be very high for the next half century or so,” says Dede. “The pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg. Universities in a way are moving out of the education business with degrees and courses and moving into the continuous capacity building business.”

More than ever, higher education must cater to changing mindsets – from 18-year-olds to even 58-year-olds.

“Change and transition are imminent,” Scott says. “The idea that there’s a fixed date where everyone at the same age comes to the hard stop to work has already gone. 10 years ago, 1 in 20 Americans were working at age 75. Today, it’s 1 in 10. And in 10 years time, it will be more like 1 in 7. In the UK, 1 in 4 people who retire unretire. As that time extends, you’re seeing people do very different things in retirement. One of the secrets to longevity is having a sense of purpose and a sense of engagement. Good education isn’t just about getting skills for employment. It’s also about sorting out your values and your purpose and what you want to do.”

Where higher ed can make a difference

In the virtual discussion hosted by Arizona State University and moderated by former CNBC anchor Bill Griffeth, panelists Scott and Dede, along with University of Washington vice provost Rovy Branon and Georgia Tech associate dean of learning systems Yakut Gazi took aim at a number of topics that likely will reshape education in the future – climate change, equity, artificial intelligence, new skills development and employer needs.

And the 100-year life.

“We’re actually seeing more people over the age of 65 coming back to earn certificates and programs than we might have thought as mid-career programs just 10 years ago,” Branon says. “There’s no sign of slowing down.”

As barriers are removed, opportunities for both students of all ages and for institutions are already happening, even at the most traditional universities. Gazi notes, “these last six months have been fascinating. It’s almost like a parallel universe that people come to places like Harvard, and it’s online, right?”

Dede has seen that remarkable disruption firsthand. Beyond the switch to remote learning, he says there may be further opportunities to entice students to come to Harvard and other colleges.

“In the School of Education, it’s the first time that we’ve accepted part-time students for our master’s degrees,” Dede says. “And the pool of people who’ve applied is just extraordinary. People who would never have given up their job for a year to move to Boston, who were incredibly talented with wonderful life experiences. It’s enriched teaching, it’s enriched peer relationships within the students, and it may be that Harvard will be a little more flexible when the world goes back after the pandemic because they’ve seen the kind of students that we can get into the door.”

That flexibility might be important because the shakeup over the next five years could be extraordinary.

Think about this: Dede says one of the most notable changes will be transformation of workers whose “jobs will have an AI partner that will reskill or upskill what the human being is doing. People will be making transitions all the time, some of them intentional, some of them involuntary. We’ll certainly be moving towards the forms of validating knowledge and skills that are less time intensive and resource intensive than getting a full degree or even a full certification.”

Or this: “Some are arguing that instead of declaring a major, like I’m going to major in physics, you declare a passion, like I want to really help reduce climate change,” Dede says. “And then instead of getting a set of courses in a major, you get a set of courses across different fields that prepare you when you graduate, to act on your passion. I think that’s a powerful way of thinking about things. I think another piece of this is thinking of yourself as a suite of skills as opposed to thinking of yourself as a role.”

That’s not to say a complete revamp is imminent but definitely worth noting.

“It’s not that degrees won’t be useful. I just think we’re going to see a plethora of other ways of measuring and assessing people and performance,” Scott says. “Soft skills are going to become really important, and how we actually quantify and certify soft skills is going to be another big test. I slightly disagree with the notion that all of this [change] will be around tech skills. I think, as machines get better and better, as we get more and more machine like, education will require very human skills. This is a great opportunity for humans to be more humanlike.”

Where do employers fit in

Griffeth posed a timely question to the panel on the role of employers in both training and education moving forward, as a number of companies look to fit a set of skills into their business models.

Dede believe both higher education institutions and firms will continue to co-exist. “Corporations will be providers. I think that universities will be providers. But I also think that we’ll see new kinds of roles. We may see career coaches emerge that help us navigate our landscape. You could be in the job and accumulate credentials through job performance. There’ll be more options.”

The University of Washington have more than 100 certificate programs and 80 advisory boards, and Branon says “people from these top industries that help us connect directly to employers is going to become more and more common.”

But he doesn’t expect companies to completely dominate the education space.

“Employers are still making investments in their employees on their own,” he says. “But what we hear is where they’ve made those investments, they’re actually coming back to universities and saying our employees are asking for transferable credentials that make them more flexible in this workplace where they’re unlikely to stay for 30 years. We are seeing more training within organizations to maximize their own talent pipelines, but a recognition that if you’re not keeping that workforce for 30 to 40 years, you’re going to have people transitioning in and out.

“So you need the flexibility of having people with portability of their credentialing and their learning so that you can move employees in and out of that system more effectively. We’re going to have to have a deeper connectedness and indeed different kinds of social contact between business industry institutions and learners.”

One of the most important considerations universities must make is around tuition cost. For learners who are looking to expand their education or increase the number of years within the space, it must fit into a wide range of budgets. Georgia Tech’s master’s program, for example features three degrees that cost less than $10,000.

“I’m a firm believer that affordability and scale is at the heart of the 60-year curriculum, the future of work and future of education,” Gazi says. “I think we need to empower individuals to take charge of their own learning. Depending on your employer to do that, this may not be a sustainable solution. So the way we can achieve this is scale. If we achieve scale in a certain program, we can bring down the cost to an individual.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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