The four-year university model needs a lifelong learning overhaul

Imagine if your personal trainer told you: “If you exercise every day for four years, you will be fit for the rest of your life.” Though laughable (as Sarah Stein Greenberg of Stanford’s Design School noted at WIRED by Design…

Imagine if your personal trainer told you: “If you exercise every day for four years, you will be fit for the rest of your life.” Though laughable (as Sarah Stein Greenberg of Stanford’s Design School noted at WIRED by Design in 2014), this is largely how higher education has worked for the last 200 years. We ask students to dedicate four years of their lives to learning full time and most never return. In 2020, new models of education will start to be adopted.

Universities and employers come to IDEO asking how to stay relevant in the midst of accelerating change. We know that there’s a lot of collective anxiety about automation and its impact on the workforce. As IBM CEO Ginni Rometty recently told a conference: “I expect AI to change 100 per cent of jobs within the next five to 10 years.” Both employers and workers want to stay ahead of the curve. To do so, universities must figure out how they can help – not just at the start of people’s careers, but throughout, as the conditions of the world change. In 2020, academic institutions will start to offer lifelong admittance, paid for on a subscription basis. Rather than simply provide students with an on-ramp to a career and the occasional professional pitstop, universities will find ways to build ongoing relationships with workers. This impetus for a new model won’t just be driven by demand from professionals looking to upgrade their skills or switch careers. Universities are already feeling the heat of professional development programmes such as coding bootcamps whose rolling admissions and alternative financing models are threatening the role of four-year institutions. By offering students the opportunity to return throughout their careers, universities can leverage their greatest asset – their brand. A degree from a trusted university is a credential that still garners the respect of both employers and students. By shifting to a subscription model whereby students can come and go as they please, universities can adapt to the demands of the market. Not only will students be able to access educational opportunities at different stages of life, but universities will be able to provide them with alternative financing options based on their needs. In the US, income share agreements, in which individuals commit to pay a percentage of their income over a pre-defined period, are gaining popularity as an alternative to student loans. In 2020, students will be able to find new ways to access formal education without the exorbitant costs.Based on this idea, Stanford’s d.school has proposed a university-wide exploration into the future of its on-campus experience, called Stanford 2025. One of the group’s ideas was an experiment called Open Loop University, where students could spread their education over a longer period of time. Rather than attend college for four years between the ages of 18 and 22, students would have six years worth of study to be used over a lifetime. Imagine a student studying for two years full time, then doing a few internships before returning to study with a refined sense of purpose. Later, when they want to level up or switch careers, they could again return to their alma mater, no questions asked. We’re witnessing a significant shift in the role of higher education – especially as it relates to the needs of working adults whose security is increasingly threatened by advancing technology. The public library system in South Bend, Indiana, is working to retool the town to be a hub for lifelong learning. The community college system in California is reimagining the role of community colleges to prepare students for growing industries. It’s time traditional four-year universities did the same. Learning is a muscle. Those who learn over time strengthen this muscle and are better equipped to evolve with the changing demands of work. This is true for workers, yes – but it’s also true for institutions. In 2020, universities will adapt to the needs of students, rather than the other way around. Heather Emerson is a managing director of IDEO San FranciscoMore great stories from WIRED🍅 Why do modern tomatoes taste so bad? 🚙 How Tesla became the world’s most overvalued car company📽️ Marvel at the incredible real-life Iron Man 📢 How Slack ruined work👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp. by entering your email address, you agree to our privacy policy Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly. Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.