Published on 2012/12/03

Lifelong learning can begin for students long before they ever step into a university classroom, and continuing education professionals must understand that they serve more than just an adult student population, but also a high school and elementary age student population as well.

Continuing Education has long embraced the concept of lifelong learning. The premise of lifelong learning is grounded in the idea that learning is an ongoing, personal, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. Many economists believe lifelong learning is critical to sustaining a competitive and skilled workforce. Although continuing education professionals have traditionally focused on the life stages of adults 25 and older, could continuing education be well-positioned to complement secondary education institutions in the 21st Century?

Our current high school students spend a great deal of time meeting national testing standards ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Teachers have had to modify their teaching approaches to ensure their students perform on assessments at select grade levels in order to receive federal school funding. The outcome of this effort seeks to enable every student to graduate from high school ready for college and a career. Unfortunately, this approach is not working.

Today, all states have developed and implemented standards; in many cases, however, these standards do not reflect the knowledge and skills needed for success after high school, either in further education or in a job. Nationally, four of every ten new college students now take remedial courses, and industry frequently comments on the inadequate preparation of high school graduates. Our high school students are underprepared and paying the price when they arrive at college.

National data suggests eighty percent of college-bound students have yet to choose a major. But they are still expected to select schools, and apply to and start degree programs without knowing where they want to end up. Continuing education pre-college programs, like Brown University, offer mid-high school students the means to avoid this problem and many other barriers college students face once they arrive on a college campus.

Brown University has developed a diverse portfolio of pre-college programming for secondary students to enroll in online. These programs enable students to a) prepare for the academic challenges during the first year of college; b) confirm their interest in a profession or field of study; and c) gain exposure to college before graduating from high school. The courses include titles like, “So you want to be a doctor,” “Exploring engineering,” “DNA science,” “Anatomy,” and “Physiology and disease.” Darcy Lipper, an aspiring engineer, said “I liked the assignments that challenged me and made me think outside the box and I like the chances we had to apply knowledge and give our own opinions.”

In addition to offering college-prep programs, Columbia University School of Continuing Education has gone a step further by offering a unique opportunity for academically exceptional local high school students to take college courses with Columbia University students and earn full college credit. The High School Visiting Student Program is open to high school juniors and seniors who have demonstrated academic excellence in their studies and are highly motivated to advance their academic careers.

Francesca Slade said, “I had completed enough math at my school to enable me to take calculus at Columbia over the summer. I enjoyed the class so much that I continued taking math, physics, and theoretical computer science classes. I have almost completed the requirements for a math major at Columbia. I just found out that I’ve been accepted to Cambridge and Yale and I’m looking forward to starting college!”

Although further research investigating the impact of college-prep programs similar to Brown and Columbia needs to be conducted, the impact these programs have on lowering high school dropout rates, on increasing persistence rates in college, and and on college graduation completion appear to be significant. Early engagement with institutions of higher learning makes sense, given the significant investment students and their families will likely make with their decision to attend college. The goal should be to ensure each student maximizes their return on investment (ROI) in terms of obtaining their degree, obtaining a good job upon graduation, and avoiding significant student loan debt.

The national continuing education professional associations, U.S. higher education system, and workforce development leaders should take note there is an opportunity to embrace a paradigm shift in education. The current education system is based on an obsolete era, mirrored on the industrial revolution. Today, our next generation needs to be enabled to have core foundations of science, technology, engineering, and math, while also being driven by the creative and innovative constructs of the liberal arts. And above all, continuing education should service as bridge between secondary, post-secondary and lifelong education continuing into adulthood.

Lifelong learning does not begin as an adult; it is not measured throughout one’s life by standardized testing, nor does it reach some end point. Lifelong learning starts as early as life itself begins. Continuing education professionals should understand that they have a duty to promote, communicate, and deliver “K to Grave,” programming early life stages. If this is not achieved, the phrase “lifelong learning” is misleading—according to the prevailing wisdom right now, it is only for adults 25 and older. This notion needs to change—it is over our entire lives, not just a portion of our lives, that we should never stop learning.

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Readers Comments

Eileen Peters 2012/12/03 at 7:53 am

The programs you refer to as solutions to the problem of underprepared highschool students reveal a divide in what you mean by underprepared: in one understanding, there are the highschool students who may not graduate, who need remedial help, et cetera; and on the other hand, there are students who are certain they want to attend college, just not sure what major to select. You mention both kinds of “underprepared,” but these pre-college programs do nothing for the former; they are only of assistance to those who have already decided to go to college and are just checking out their options. Don’t get me wrong, these are great programs to have; but if we are talking about problems with the secondary school system in the U.S., college-bound highschoolers who are indecisive about their major are not really a high priority.

Unless these programs have specific ways of targeting or reaching out to populations that typically would not attend college, or who are less likely to do so, then I see nothing of interest here.

    Edward Abeyta 2012/12/03 at 5:46 pm

    You bring up a great point Eileen regarding targeted populations. UC San Diego’s Academic Connection’s program serves over 400 students for the 3 week residential pre-college experience. 1/3 of the students are 1st generation or foster youth. I did not bring this up in the article in an effort to focus on the value of pre-college programming and learning across the life-span. Your comment inspires me to expand further on this the topic of outreach.

Greg Allan 2012/12/03 at 5:14 pm

I really like the idea explored here of reshaping the idea of lifelong learning to mean not just learning after the age of 25, but truly lifelong learning.

For the meaning of this term to actually change, and to have an impact on youth, I think would involve some radical shifts in our school system and our society. But perhaps it is already beginning with MOOCs; current MOOCs are more geared toward higher-level professionals and college graduates. But the Gates Foundation, among others, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the creation of entry-level or “gateway” MOOCs, designed to reach out to populations typically underserved by higher education. It would be interesting to see MOOCs adopt this concept of lifelong learning, and I think it might be in the cards.

Edward Abeyta 2012/12/03 at 5:48 pm

Great point Greg about leveraging MOOCs as change agent. Thank you.

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