People today think of school as something you go through as a young person, a springboard into adulthood. We’ve been conditioned into thinking of school as a one-time step towards becoming productive members of society.
Schools are split into different stages - from Pre-K through to graduate school in university. While K-12 needs improvement on a variety of levels (better normalization of disadvantages, personalization, etc…) I want to focus on higher education throughout this post.
I believe the concept of higher education is about to undergo a radical change. Many people like to talk about the effect of technology within the school. What I’m talking about is the external influence of technology on schools. Let me explain what I mean in more detail.
New technology will change everything
The #1 topic of conversation regarding the future of work is how robots & AI (artificial intelligence) are going to affect our jobs. How many jobs will we lose? What types of jobs will these be? What happens to the people who can’t find a place in the new labour market?
While the conversation is largely speculative at this point, the directionality of the topic is correct. The labour market is going to have a major change in the next 10-20 years, and we aren’t prepared for it. Even if there are net new jobs created as a result of this shift, the nature of these jobs are going to be different.
How do we currently prepare people for jobs? The answer is training - which mostly comes in the form of higher education. We sign up for four years to be “trained” in an area of speciality, and we exchange a lot of money to do so. For years having a degree was a strong enough “signal” that the field of study or quality of education was an afterthought. Recently, degree inflation has meant that this signal has grown weaker and weaker, leading to higher forms of education.
How will schools adapt?
In the future, I believe higher education will bifurcate into two distinct groups: elite liberal arts education and in-demand career training education. Elite colleges (top 20) will always be elite, you are paying for the brand far above the actual education, and brands are built over time. The 1-2% of students who are able to go to these institutions in the future will enjoy the same privileges of today, including access to a network of people that will provide a social “safety net” for their working lives and first choice for many white-collar jobs.
The other group of institutions - in-demand career training centres - will in the future look vastly different than what you see today. Today 98% of students go to a collection of non-elite private four year colleges, public four year colleges, online for-profit colleges, community colleges, etc… There are 4000 higher educational institutions in America ready to train people, many of which have less than stellar reputations.
As the skills gap continues to widen (5.6 million jobs that can’t be filled, as of today) these “other” schools are going to become vastly more important to the labour market than the elite colleges the media loves to write about and rank. The future version of these schools will focus on only the most in-demand careers, using real-time labour information to change their courses and offerings.
The major trend that people aren’t yet anticipating is the speed at which the labour market is going to change. New careers will be invented at an increasingly rapid pace, and older jobs will be eliminated at an faster rate. This growth in the rate of change will force a change in how higher education works. It makes no sense to train people in six year (the average length of time it takes to graduate from university) segments for a career that is new and is in-demand over the next two years. It also makes no sense to saddle new graduates with $35,000+ in debt before they’ve even started their career.
Robots, AI and the new economy won’t just force schools to adapt, they’ll force people to adapt too. What is now a “go to school one time when you are young” concept will be transformed into a new model of training. With careers changing and the fluidity of skills increasing, people will have to go to school multiple times throughout their working life. School will become shorter, cheaper and more relevant for the new labour market.
A life of learning
It’s conceivable that young people born today will need to go to school 4-5 times in their life. They may get trained as a data-driven writer in their first session, come back five years later to become an electrician and go for re-training in the modern manufacturing industry every 5-10 years. This new model would allow people to try multiple careers quickly, with minimal baggage for making a mistake and choosing the wrong career. Instead of being stuck in a career that people are unhappy in, they would be able to iterate personally until finding the correct path. As that path would evolve in the new labour market, going back to school would make sure they are constantly in a career that the world needs.
So how many times will you go to school during your career? If you are about to retire, the answer may be the typical “one”. But the next generation may go multiple times, changing the paradigm around how we think education should function when we are adults.