We live in a world that’s changing all around us. That’s hardly a news flash.
However, a recent article in The Atlantic magazine provides some fascinating context about how it’s changing — and ought to be a must-read for state and local officials. In fairness, those officials we’re familiar with already know all this, so perhaps it’s everyone else who ought to read “The Third Education Revolution.”
The article makes the case that education is no longer something that ends with a high school diploma or a college degree — but something that has to be continued throughout someone’s entire work career. “Lifelong learning” is such a cliché it’s easy to forget just how profound this point is. To put this in more practical terms: The concept of “lifelong learning” completely upends the way the United States structures, and funds, education. This is a trend with some pretty challenging policy implications.
It’s an accepted fact these days that four-year colleges serve as economic engines but the inclusion of the community college was one that took many by surprise — but shouldn’t have. The story said Rhode Island’s community college system “is working hard to change the tired image of two-year institutions as places for high-school graduates who can’t hack it on four-year campuses or for the unemployed trying to figure out what’s next.” Instead, “the college is overhauling its approach to workforce development by better aligning programs with the state’s economic priorities than is currently the case.”
That actually sounds a lot like Virginia, where the community college system increasingly figures in economic development calculations.
The company that made the Roanoke Valley’s biggest jobs announcements in recent years — the Eldor auto parts plant — cited the presence of Virginia Western Community College as a factor in its location decision.
More broadly, Virginia’s state government has noted an increase in so-called “middle skills” jobs — ones that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree — and has moved to triple the number of industry-recognized credentials issued through the community college system.
Anyone who’s ever spent more than a few minutes with Virginia Western President Bobby Sandel has probably heard him brag about how quickly his school can move to set up whatever programs might be required by local employers. Not all those programs need be on the school’s Colonial Avenue campus, either. Sometimes instructors go into workplaces themselves.
A few years ago, the author James Fallows toured the country studying the economies of communities outside the nation’s major metros. Out of that, he produced a list of “11 signs a city will succeed.” One of those 11 signs was “they have, and care about, a community college.”
Community colleges matter so much because the economy is undergoing what The Atlantic calls “the third education revolution.” Specifically: “The world of work is undergoing a massive shift. Not since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Information Age that followed in the last century has the scale of disruption taking place in the workforce been so evident. An oft-cited 2013 paper from the University of Oxford predicted that nearly half of American jobs — including real-estate brokers, insurance underwriters, and loan officers — were at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades. Just last year, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that estimated a third of American workers may have to change jobs by 2030 because of artificial intelligence.”
The Atlantic went on to write: “Previous shifts in how people work have typically been accompanied in the United States by an expansion in the amount of education required by employers to get a good job.” First that meant public schools and the expectation that everyone would graduate from high school; later that meant a dramatic expansion in the number of students attending college.
Now, the article says, “a third wave in education and training has arrived.” This third wave “is likely to be marked by continual training throughout a person’s lifetime” and that “workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now when it often takes months or years to complete certificates and degrees.” The obvious vehicles for those “short spurts” of “lifelong learning” are community colleges.
The article also warns that this lifelong learning comes with two hazards.
First, workers have to re-orient their thinking. Re-training isn’t something that only follows a “traumatic event,” such as a layoff, but simply part of how life works now.
Second is the worry that “the arrival of lifelong education will only exacerbate the economic divide that already exists in the United States.” That’s because “rich kids are far more likely to graduate from college than are their poor and working-class peers. There’s no reason not to believe that trend won’t continue in this third wave of lifelong learning,” according to the Atlantic article. The affluent married couple can afford one spouse to take time to go back to school; the single mom working a minimum-wage job may not be able to — yet she’s the one who needs it most.
We already see some of these issues starting to bubble up in the form of policy questions. Both President Trump and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia — two politicians who don’t agree on very much, to put it mildly — have both pointed out that federal student aid doesn’t cover these short-term training programs. We have scholarships for high school graduates who want to go to college, but adults in need of more education are on their own.
This third education revolution is likely to raise a lot more policy questions as it rolls through the economy, challenging orthodoxies on both left and right and perhaps creating more strange bedfellows in the process.