‘Without the chance to continuously learn, we can become very good at our jobs while better opportunities pass us by’
Viewpoints: By thinking beyond 18- to 22-year-old students, institutions of higher learning can help power the next wave of sustainable innovation, writes Christopher Boone, dean of Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures.
Our monthly Viewpoints series invites guest authors from outside of Wells Fargo to share an important perspective related to their work. Today, we welcome Christopher Boone, dean of Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures.
Historically, formal education stopped at about age 18, or for people going on to college, around 22. The prevailing thinking is that anything else you need to know can be learned on the job. Experience is a great teacher, but in a time of rapid technological disruption, globalization, and environmental change, on-the-job training may be too narrow in focus for us to see the big picture, including growth opportunities and possibilities for individuals and the organizations they work for. Without the chance to continuously learn, we can become very good at our jobs while better opportunities pass us by.
American colleges and universities have performed their traditional responsibilities reasonably well. Although achievement gaps exist by gender, race, and ethnicity, Americans overall are better educated now than ever before. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 36% of Americans over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree, up from 30% in 2010 and 24% in 2000.
Although educational attainment is going up overall, a sad truth is that 40% of students who start college never finish. More than 36 million students who started college after 1993 did not graduate and are left with debt and little else to show from their experience. On this front, U.S. universities and colleges receive a failing grade, but this should also be seen as an opportunity. Creating pathways to degree completion offers a way for colleges and universities, many of which are seeing declining enrollments, to play a role in powering up a large segment of the population.
At Arizona State University, we have developed multiple ways for students to learn, and at any age. ASU Online, a robust digital learning ecosystem of more than 200 programs, has opened educational opportunities to nearly 50,000 students, allowing them to learn anywhere, anytime, and by the same world-class faculty as on-campus students. Importantly, ASU Online reaches more older learners on average than our campus-based degrees. Many complete unfinished degrees on a schedule that meets the requirements of their life stage.
For some people, degree completion is not possible or even desired. Colleges and universities need to explore how shorter learning experiences can add to or supplement what people have already learned. Others with degrees already in hand are looking for ways to add skills or credentials to their existing knowledge base. Online workshops, short weekend or evening courses, company-sponsored learning retreats, and other activities can be used to award learners with certificates, badges, and other credentials to populate their LinkedIn profiles and their resumes. At ASU, we worked with Starbucks to create a “Greener Apron” program, a short online course that provides partners with a sustainability credential, and “To Be Welcoming,” a short course on equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Universities can partner with organizations to create trusted resources for lifelong learning. With Wells Fargo, ASU’s School of Sustainability developed a learning portal called Sustainable Earth. After a successful 24-hour Earth Day in 2019 reaching over a million people, Wells Fargo and ASU recognized a hunger for stories, examples, learning resources, and toolkits for people of all ages and backgrounds to translate their energy into sustainable actions.
Wells Fargo and more than 90% of S&P 500 companies now issue corporate sustainability reporting. A very welcome trend is that businesses now see sustainability as more than corporate social responsibility — embedding sustainability practice into the culture and operations of an organization is smart and good business, opening up new markets, sparking innovation, and identifying new investment opportunities.
At ASU, we have found that providing sustainability training to companies and organizations unleashes extraordinary energy, enthusiasm, and creativity in their employees at all levels of the organization, boosting morale and employee retention while providing individuals with tools to improve the environment and well-being of their communities.
Lifelong learning should be more than a refresher or sharpening of skills. Done well, it provides meaning and focus to life at any age. Colleges and universities must adapt to these new realities. By partnering with external organizations and thinking beyond 18- to 22-year-old students, institutions of higher learning can tap into reserves of wisdom and energy and help power the next wave of sustainable innovation.