21st Century Lifelong Learning Infrastructure
As Congress turns to the next phase of COVID-19 recovery measures, we urge them to include investments in lifelong learning, in order to develop a 21st century workforce infrastructure built to grow our future. These infrastructure investments should include incentives for all types of institutions to build digital learning capacity, new savings mechanisms to help Americans reskill and upskill, data sharing best practices, activities to support returning military and veterans, and robust research and development focused on the future of work and learning.
In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, many Americans, including members of Northeastern University’s community, are stuck at home. Unemployment is skyrocketing and Americans across the country are being forced to find new ways to work, learn, and take care of their families. The pandemic and the related global shutdown, combined with on-going advances in artificial intelligence and automation, are likely to permanently transform the global economy and will continue to have a profoundly disruptive effect on American workers.
As a result, Americans already at risk of being left behind now face the prospect of a recession, increased job insecurity, and additional family challenges. In a shrinking and transforming economy, the chances of being left behind by technological change are higher and the impact of being left behind is greater than ever.
As proven leaders in experiential learning and higher education innovation, we at Northeastern University believe that this moment presents a lifelong learning imperative: we must meet learners where they are—at home, at work, balancing family, professional, and other obligations—and acknowledge that advances in technology and changes to the very nature of work will require Americans to continuously upskill over our lifetimes.
In order to meet this moment, we must build a 21st Century Lifelong Learning Infrastructure.
Building a robust 21st century lifelong learning infrastructure will ensure that Americans are not left behind when the economy picks back up again, that institutions of higher education have the capacity to deliver the learning of the future, and that employers continue to have access to the talent they need to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of work. A 21st century lifelong learning infrastructure means:
Tax and Finance Policy
- Lifelong Learning Savings Accounts: Establish tax-advantaged Lifelong Learning Savings Accounts. These accounts would be similar to 529 plans but offer Americans the opportunity to save for a lifetime of learning, beyond, alongside, or instead of undergraduate education.
- Employer Contributions to Lifelong Learning Savings Accounts: Encourage employers to contribute to their employees’ lifelong learning savings accounts in the same way they match contributions to retirements savings accounts. This would show that employers understand the new reality in which individuals must continuously interweave working and learning. These contributions, like those of the worker, would be portable and stay with the worker as they move between jobs.
- Incentivize Stackable Credentials: Incentivize lifelong learning that builds towards degree completion by, for example, matching dollars spent on stackable credentials with credits to an individual’s Lifelong Learning Savings Account for later use. Certificate programs, boot camps, military and industry training programs, and other short-term offerings will be more important than ever. Incentivizing the offering and use of stackable credentials would encourage institutions to recognize them for transfer credit and also help ensure quality and rigor in non-credit programs. For example, Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies recognizes dozens of industry certifications that integrate into degree completion including Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate and IBM’s digital badges.
- Leverage Existing Financial Aid Mechanisms and Institutional Programs to Expand Experiential and Work-Based Learning: Rather than simply creating new mechanisms, Congress should seek to expand the use of Federal-Work Study funding and grants and pilot projects from the DOL Employment and Training Administration for institutions of higher education.
- Digital Learning Capacity Building: Invest in the development of digital learning infrastructure and best practices so that our higher education may better meet learners, including underserved populations, where they and be more resilient to future disruptions. Higher education is already trending in this direction, but the current moment shines a bright light on the need for broad-based investment in novel and trusted digital learning methods. Expanded and improved digital learning infrastructure also allows for greater use of innovative experiential learning models, such as those utilized in Northeastern’s Experiential Network (XN).
- Educational Institution Innovation Partnerships: The federal government should also support partnerships between four-year colleges and universities and community colleges and technical schools which help the latter build digital learning infrastructure and develop innovative programs. Our community colleges are a vital resource and institutions of all sizes should be encouraged to utilize the tools at their disposal to bring innovation and enhanced articulation agreements among schools, including online learning methods, virtual internships, and other advancements.
- Expand Undergraduate Support for National Competitiveness: The original National Defense Education Act created the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program to provide graduate training in key research areas and to ensure the development of an advanced scientific workforce. Congress should look to create new programs for undergraduate students to become engaged in critical research and technology areas for national competitiveness. This program could provide financial assistance to undergraduate students in the model of NSF’s Scholarships in STEM program (S-STEM) and provide undergraduates with research experiences that help expose them to exciting real world problems. The program should include incentives for universities to address diversity and retention to ensure that the United States maximizes the development of its domestic talent base.
Research and Data Sharing
- Future of Work and Learning Centers of Excellence: Although we are hearing more every day about the changing nature of work and the impacts of technologies such as AI and automation on education and the workforce, we are not investing on a national level in understanding the impending workforce disruption nor how to address our challenges. . To maintain the U.S. as the premier source of talent and innovation, the federal government should invest in multi-agency Centers of Excellence devoted to long-term large-scale research and development on the future of work and the educational innovations needed to meet that future. These Centers would incubate critically-needed research and development of the digital learning technologies and best practices needed to build a resilient, world-leading lifelong learning ecosystem.
- Expand data collection to better understand STEM pathways: Leveraging examples of best practices, more data on graduate student careers and relationship to their fields of study, apprenticeships offered and skilled technical workforce pathways available, the impact of AI and automation on the national labor force, regional economies, and individual economic sectors must be collected and shared. Investments in the Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics directorate could provide the needed information to ensure next steps are effective and lasting
In 1948, the United States passed a sweeping recovery and modernization plan for post-WWII Europe which would become known as the Marshall Plan. In addition to directly aiding Europe’s recovery and modernization, the Marshall Plan is credited with spurring an increased productivity, creativity, and mobility of Europeans and growing the American economy at the same time. By putting Europe on a path to recovery, the Marshall Plan put Europe, and the United States, on a path towards the future.
In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, America is facing another Marshall Plan moment. So many aspects of our society will require a bold vision for the future and a plan for rebuilding. Higher education will be no different.
We can meet these challenges, but in order to do so, government, higher education, and industry must come together to ensure that essential learning opportunities are available, accessible, and effective for everyone. If we do that, we will come out of this crisis with a stronger and more resilient workforce and a community of lifelong learners that will generate decades of growth, prosperity, and stability.