Published on 2016/09/20
The EvoLLLution | Career Pathways: Expanding Higher Education’s Role
As learning moves from a one-time event to a lifetime commitment for today’s professionals, education providers have to find new access points and opportunities that meet the needs of the labor market.

In today’s world, a traditional university education has a short lifespan. Unlike in the not-too-distant past, a university degree no longer lasts a lifetime. As the rapid pace of the knowledge economy continues to drive the need for change in higher education, universities are grappling for solutions. While the customary role of higher education was to focus on students’ formative academic years, the expectation now is to also provide an education that sustains learners throughout their careers. Rather than only deliver foundational academic learning that opens the doors to potential entry-level careers, universities must now seek ways to offer enduring educational experiences to individuals while they are in their careers. This education needs to be able to withstand the pace of change and last learners throughout their working lives.

Much work is being done in this regard. Professional degrees, certificate programs, competency-based education, alternative credentials, and other innovative offerings are becoming available to today’s learners. These innovations represent the sweeping shift taking place in higher education and universities’ efforts to adapt to learners’ needs. But are they sufficient to keep up with the changes a learner typically experiences during the course of a career? How can universities predict the knowledge needed by its graduates 20, 30, or even 40 years into the future?  Do universities’ offerings enable growth across an array of career choices during one’s lifetime, or are they really focused on the depth needed for a specific job?

To truly offer today’s learners a durable education, universities need to provide learning opportunities that transcend job periods or career segments. We, in higher education, need to see beyond job preparation and specific fields of endeavor. In other words, we need to challenge ourselves to think more expansively in terms of career lifespans and not simply in terms of courses, credentials and jobs. If we don’t broaden our thinking, we risk missing out on contributing substantially to today’s learners.

We can make this contribution if we move beyond the culture of job preparation and focus, instead, on career pathways. By identifying potential career pathways for learners and offering educational opportunities to support them at any time as they progress through their professional journeys, we can help them anticipate and withstand the many changes they are bound to experience during the course of their careers. By defining these pathways for today’s learners, we will enable them to build upon their acquired knowledge, skills and expertise so that they can successfully navigate a constantly evolving world of career options and requirements. And by delivering this level of value, we will keep them engaged with our institutions throughout their lifetimes.

At Georgia Tech Professional Education, we’re in the early stages of exploration with this approach. For example, we’ve embarked on initiatives in data gathering and research on learners. By collecting robust data on our learners’ needs and interpreting it effectively, we will be able to make meaningful educational offerings that enable them to plot the course of their careers rather than merely prepare them for jobs. The more we understand our learners, their concerns, challenges, and aspirations, the more likely we are to play a significant role in their professional journeys.

By designing courses and programs focusing on bodies of knowledge rather than on subject areas, we have already taken steps to extend the lifespan of the educational opportunities we offer. However, learners tend to transcend bodies of knowledge during their careers. For example, civil engineers often move beyond civil engineering into related careers several years after entering the field. While transitioning from subject areas to bodies of knowledge has been valuable, we recognize the need to do more. By using the data we gather to determine the points in learners’ careers when they typically start exploring opportunities beyond their original bodies of knowledge, we can develop high-value programs to equip them for these types of transitions.

Another area we intend to explore is the benefits of using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to track and pinpoint specific points in learners’ careers when they are likely to be interested in new career opportunities and the professional education needed to pursue them.

By expanding its role to provide educational opportunities beyond foundational academic learning, higher education can adapt to the changes and challenges it currently faces. Meeting the complex needs of today’s learners entails providing innovative offerings not only to prepare them for specific jobs but also to support them throughout the course of their careers and lifetimes. If higher education takes the lead in defining career pathways for learners and guiding them through their entire career journeys, it can play a meaningful role in lifelong learning.

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