We envision a future in which everyone has opportunities for lifelong learning so they can build the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in family-sustaining jobs. This reimagined postsecondary education and training system—encompassing colleges, other training and service providers, workforce development systems, and employers—would empower people to choose from multiple pathways for high-quality learning and skill-building.  And it would allocate costs fairly among students, businesses, and government, recognizing the benefits to students of self-fulfillment and income, to firms of a skilled workforce, and to society of economic growth and stability.

Today, more and more Americans are going to community and four-year college and pursuing other postsecondary credentials. And a growing share of postsecondary students are older, parents, or people of color, with wide-ranging goals and needs. Although today’s postsecondary education and training system works well for some students, too many fall through the cracks. Plus, the cost of postsecondary education is climbing, leaving many students struggling with debt, especially those who are unsuccessful in attaining credentials of economic value.

In the decades ahead, global competition, technological advancements, and the rise of contractual and temporary work will continue to transform how people work and the skills they need to succeed. Without a comparable transformation to our postsecondary education and training system, too many people won’t be able to build or refresh their skills, blocking opportunities for upward mobility and worsening economic inequities.  But we see reasons for optimism

Lifelong Learning: Promising Solutions

States, localities, educational institutions, and employers around the country are exploring solutions to offer adults of all ages the postsecondary education and training opportunities they need to succeed and adapt to a fast-changing labor market. Below we highlight five of the most promising strategies being pursued that can help achieve that vision.

Support students’ success

Pierce College in Washington State uses guided pathways to simplify students’ choices about college courses, inform and support those choices, and direct students into a comprehensive program of study that leads to a credential.

When students start college, they face an array of confusing choices, lack support in homing in on their educational and career goals, and often spend time and money on coursework that isn’t aligned with their goals. Innovative efforts being scaled to help more students figure out their long-term objectives and best support them along the way include

  • City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which gives students a highly structured, intensively supported experience that combines blocked scheduling, robust advising, and more at no cost to students; and
  • the “guided pathways” approach, adopted by more than 250 universities, which gives students a smaller number of options and clearer information about the direction they need to take to complete degrees.

“The elite model of, you're 19, come in for four years and come out cooked, is no longer appropriate if it ever was. The linearity of higher ed needs to be broken.”

— Gail O. Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City in Queens, New York, “Why Harvard, Yale and Stanford May Not Be the ‘Best’ Colleges,” NPR

Colleges are also reinventing how they deliver developmental and remedial education. Their strategies include integrating such instruction within college-level courses or offering “co-requisite” models, where developmental courses are taken at the same time as college-level courses. For example

  • the California State University (CSU) recently began replacing noncredit prerequisite remedial courses with new credit-bearing or “stretch” courses that come with additional support.

Scaling and sustaining supports for students poses a significant challenge. Recently, though, several institutions have started to leverage technology to offer cost-effective support services at scale. Among the innovative solutions are

Provide alternative models of learning and credentialing

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) operates a competency-based degree program. SNHU President Paul LeBlanc is a leading proponent of this alternative model of learning and credentialing.

As the nature of work changes and student bodies become more diverse, education and training programs are offering high-quality learning options that can be integrated into people’s lives. At the heart of many of these efforts is the idea that students should be assessed based on the competencies they master, not their time in a classroom. Organizations leading the charge to promote wider adoption of this model include

“For Kentucky to fully realize itself as the engineering and manufacturing hub of excellence in North America, we must continue to look for ways to expand apprenticeships to new locations, industries, and within all populations of our workforce.”

–  Mike Nemes, Deputy Secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet

Photo By Jacob Ryan

Competency-based models also include work-based learning opportunities such as internships, externships, and apprenticeships. Changemakers are exploring ways to offer these opportunities to more people and in more work settings and sectors. For example

  • Apprenticeship Carolina is expanding apprenticeships in South Carolina through tax incentives, marketing the program to employers, and technical assistance for apprenticeship sponsors,  increasing its number of registered apprentices from 415 to nearly 3,000 over a decade;
  • Kentucky is increasing the number and diversity of apprentices and expanding apprenticeships to new fields, including jobs in cybersecurity, health care, and software development; and
  • the number of apprenticeship programs offered within the justice system tripled between 2000 and 2016, helping people leaving prison successfully transition into the labor market.

Online learning programs can give students access to education and skill-building programs on their own schedule, at their own pace, and (in some cases) adapted to their own learning needs. Such programs are often linked to competency-based models and are offered by both

  • for-profit institutions like Capella University, which offers educational programs that are fully online; and
  • nonprofit institutions such as Southern New Hampshire University, which grew from 2,500 students in campus-based programs to 90,000 students in mostly online programs over the past decade and a half.

Career pathways programs involve a series of structured steps and supports that give students the chance to earn credentials for entry-level positions, find jobs while they continue to participate in training, earn additional credentials, and ultimately advance into higher paid employment. Most efforts have focused on the first steps, but organizations are starting to focus more on the advancement side of the equation. For example

  • Instituto del Progreso Latino embeds advancement within its Carreras en Salud (Careers in Health) program, helping students, especially graduates of the Basic Nursing Assistant programs, work toward an associate degree in nursing; and
  • Generation’s Retail Career Advancement Program focuses on advancement by building the skills of entry-level frontline workers and helping them to develop credentials.

Better align education providers with employers

“Our aim is to help associates pursue their passions and their career goals, whether that means a career at Amazon or somewhere else.”

— Juan Garcia, Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting and former Global Leader for Career Advancement at Amazon, on the tech giant’s Career Choice program, which provides robust tuition support and on-site classrooms to help workers advance outside the company.

The future labor market will demand stronger connections between employers and education and training programs that equip people with in-demand skills. Local workforce development systems help bridge the gap between the skills employers demand and those developed in education and training programs. Examples include

“The CoLAB is a national model for how businesses and universities can collaborate to address our nation’s talent needs at the scale of the challenge.”

Wes Bush, Chairman of Northrop Grumman and inaugural Chair of the Greater Washington Partnership’s Capital CoLAB, a partnership between employers and higher education institutions to develop high-tech talent for the workforce.

Technology is also playing an increasingly important role, helping employers, training providers, and workers understand the demand and supply of skills, and making credentials more transparent.

  • Data-scraping technologies, like Burning Glass and Geographic Solutions, help state and local governments scan job postings and online resumes to determine if people’s skills align with available jobs; and
  • Credential Engine is using a cloud-based registry to organize and make publicly available to students, employers, and institutions clear and consistent information on all types of credentials.

Major employers also are starting to reimagine how they support their workforce and advance people’s careers by expanding entry-level employees’ access to college and training. Among the private-sector leaders in this effort are

  • Walmart, which launched partnerships with three universities to offer associate and bachelor’s degrees at low cost to workers;
  • Amazon, whose Career Choice program helps hourly staff advance their careers by paying 95 percent of their tuition and fees and providing  on-site classrooms to make courses accessible for employees; and
  • Google, which developed its own IT certification program, offered it on Coursera, and brought it to community colleges and other businesses looking to hire IT workers.

Expand financing for education and training

Purdue University’s Back a Boiler income share agreement fund allows students to pay a percentage of their future income back to Purdue for about 10 years, in exchange for financial support for their education.

State and local funding and federal grants and loans to students provide the backbone of our higher education financing system. But public funding has not kept pace with rising college enrollment, increasing costs for students, many of whom aren’t able to cover their expenses even if they receive financial aid. Fresh solutions that might offer a path for curbing the student debt crisis are emerging nationwide, including

  • College Promise programs, which pay tuition and fees not covered by other aid for students in community college degree and certificate programs;
  • Income share agreements (ISA) like Purdue University’s Back a Boiler fund, in which students commit to pay a percentage of their future income for a set period in exchange for financial support for their education;
  • ISAs offered through nonprofit social impact funds like Better Future Forward, which partners with college coaching programs.

Empower students to make informed choices

Embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations, the College Scorecard aims to give students access to information on institutional outcomes to help them make decisions about college.

Until recently, students had few resources to help them decide whether a program of study would be worth their time and money, often choosing their college based on its reputation, advertisements, or campus visits. A mix of public and private actors are beginning to fill this void in information with fresh solutions, including

  • the College Scorecard, the federal government’s report of the earnings of former students from most colleges nationwide;
  • states like Virginia, which report earnings based on the major of former students who remained in the state after graduation; and
  • PayScale, a website that provides the average self-reported salaries of a subset of the graduates of many colleges.

Lifelong Learning: Knowledge priorities

Drawing on conversations with an array of changemakers, we elevate five areas where data and analysis would help today’s education and training leaders, policymakers, businesses, and philanthropists advance an integrated system of lifelong learning and skill-building that equips America’s students and workers for success.

Equip institutions to scale effective education and training strategies

“The problem isn’t a lack of innovation, but the disconnect between knowing something works and scaling it.”

James Kvaal, President of The Institute for College Access and Success

Colleges and training providers who want to scale up evidence-based approaches need better information about how to match supports to their students’ circumstances and needs, the costs of different models, and what effective implementation looks like in different institutional contexts. Many investments—from online learning and apprenticeships to local workforce programs—have achieved successful outcomes for students and employers. But too little is known about how best to scale them, both within and across institutions.  A program of research that consolidates and builds on lessons learned to date could provide timely insights and support continuous learning to help these institutions implement and scale proven programs that empower more students to complete degrees and earn industry-relevant credentials. Here’s how we can build that knowledge:

  • assemble and share the latest evidence about promising education and training strategies, including what components are most important, how to provide comprehensive supports at scale, and how successful models can be adapted to work in more places;  
  • assess lessons learned about technology-enhanced strategies such as predictive analytics and e-mentoring to determine what it would take to scale them; and
  • produce a consistent set of cost and benefit measures for different education and training strategies so funders and educators can make more informed choices about how to invest.

Assess alternative learning models with a focus on equity

“Differences in students, industries and local contexts have an impact on work-based learning and other alternative models of education and training. We really need to understand patterning in labor market and how different students fare in these alternative models.”

Chauncy Lennon, Vice President for Future of Learning and Work at Lumina Foundation


Leaders of higher education institutions and community-based training providers adopting new models of postsecondary education and training lack reliable evidence about what really works and for whom.  A rigorous program of knowledge-building and continuous knowledge-sharing focused explicitly on the effectiveness of new models for different types of learners could inform innovation and protect students.  Addressing gaps in knowledge in these areas would call for

  • conducting rigorous evaluations of competency-based approaches, online learning, and other strategies to understand how they well they advance future opportunities for specific groups of students and career pathways; and
  • interviewing and surveying students to understand their experiences with and perspectives on alternative postsecondary education models.

Document the skills employers demand

“Getting to the talent development side of employers and breaking into the large investment employers make in learning and development is the nut to crack. It would be helpful to examine this and understand if there is a better way to deploy those funds instead of keeping them siloed in HR.”

Michelle Weise, Chief Innovation Officer at Strada Institute for the Future of Work

In order to offer postsecondary education choices that help adults of all ages gain the skills they need for a changing labor market, higher education and training providers need to better understand the perspectives and priorities of employers.  Colleges and training providers can glean much of this information when they engage in deeper partnerships with employers.  But better information about industry trends and about how employers think about investments in training would help postsecondary institutions who are just beginning to engage with industry, as well as those seeking to reach more employers and students.  Up-to-date and reliable information could also help advise students about occupations, sectors, and recruitment practices. And understanding private-sector investments in training could strengthen alignment between the postsecondary education system and employer-provided training. Achieving these outcomes would require

  • partnering with employers to better document and share the full range of ways they invest in their employees’ education and training, and how they assess their return on investment;
  • assessing partnerships between education and training providers and businesses to better understand how employers benefit;
  • developing guides, tools, and indicators about proven approaches to improving workers’ skills; and
  • mapping local workforce systems that connect employer demand with worker supply.

Better measure returns on students’ investment 

“As long as the rankings of higher education institutions are based on inputs, instead of outcomes such as quality of education, many institutions will resist being measured. We’re looking to evaluate ways to compare our students to those at other institutions.”  

Policymakers and leaders of education and training institutions, public and private providers of education financing, and students and their families could all benefit from more information on the return on investment (ROI) from the range of educational and training programs available.  This would require

  • building on efforts underway to create student-level longitudinal data systems that can generate institution- or program-level measures of return on investment;
  • engaging state policymakers and higher education leaders in developing new ROI measures that are relevant and actionable for students; and
  • engaging with students (and the next generation of potential students) to understand how they process information about their choices, what kind of ROI measures would be most meaningful and useful to them as they consider whether and where to go for postsecondary education or skill-building, and what additional support they need to navigate these decisions.

Inform responsible private financing

It would be great to better understand the sorts of supportive services that our students need and interventions that we know are of value to students, particularly cost-effective ones … [ISAs] would pay for themselves because if they improve outcomes, that’s better for the student and what’s better for the student is also better for the investors.”

Kevin James, Founder and CEO of Better Future Forward

Income share agreements (ISA) and other private-sector financing models have the potential to supplement federal and state funding, making postsecondary education and training more affordable for more people. Federal and state legislators and regulators who want to create a policy environment in which experimentation is possible and consumers are protected from predatory actors don’t know enough about the potential risks—and how to mitigate them—or about how well ISAs may serve students with different backgrounds and different educational and career paths. Developing this environment calls for

  • assembling evidence about common challenges faced by providers, both by convening ISA providers and surveying students who use them (including those now in repayment);
  • drawing lessons from other areas, such as housing finance, about how to experiment with new financial products while protecting consumers;
  • evaluating specific ISA-based interventions to determine their effects both when students are in college (e.g., on academic outcomes such as credits earned) and after they leave (e.g., on their financial health as they enter the labor market and enter repayment on student loans and ISAs); and
  • developing open-source financial modeling tools based on ROI data to calculate circumstances under which ISAs will make sense for students and providers.

Based on the Lifelong Learning Catalyst Brief, written by Shayne Spaulding, Marcela Montes, Matthew Chingos, Ian Hecker.