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Considering the impacts of COVID-19 on our lifelong learning model

May 7, 2021


Considering the impacts of COVID-19 on our lifelong learning model

By EAB Expert May 6, 2021 0 minutes Image-Rising-HigherEd-white-logo-w-Teal

Maya Evans, Ph.D.

Director of Growth Strategies; University of Wisconsin-Madison

The concept of lifelong learning often sits outside of traditional thinking about undergraduate and graduate education. The lifelong learning model is shaped by ideas like the “100-year life” and the “60-year curriculum,” which emerged to respond to key demographic and labor market shifts – namely, Americans are living longer and will experience more life stages as a result. Within these life stages, we will hold more jobs, even several distinct careers, within different occupations and industries. In addition, the knowledge needed to succeed within these occupations is quickly advancing and, therefore, our needs for upskilling and reskilling will grow.

These ideas began to revolutionize how higher education continuing education units think about who we’re serving and how we’re serving them. The result was advocacy for alternative credentials, like badges and bootcamps, that deliver fast learning in modular, stackable credentials. For example, over half of professional and adult education units sampled by EAB offered or planned to offer digital badges. We also began to think more strategically about recruiting adult learners, with 75 percent of college and university strategic plans listing graduate education or adult enrollment as a top priority. As a result, we sought robust partnerships (for example, with employers) to recruit learners and align our curricula with industry needs.

Just as colleges and universities settled into these growth strategies that stretched our traditional boundaries, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in unprecedented, intersecting challenges. EAB conducted several key studies to help higher education institutions understand these challenges. They found that the pandemic portended to impact the enrollment prospects, academic success, financial stability, and health and well-being of adult learners:

  • Low-income households were 202 percent more likely to be unable to pay rent.
  • Of adults intending to enroll in fall 2020, 43 percent felt anxious most of the day or every day, and 20 percent reported fair or poor health.
  • Forty-seven percent of adults who were considering enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program canceled their college plans.

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Amidst the pandemic, our higher education institutions granted considerable attention to the impacts of COVID-19 on recruiting, educating, and supporting our traditional-age undergraduate population. Did we give equal attention to the impacts on adult learners, particularly given our investments in degree completion programs, noncredit programs, and alternative credentials? How should we rethink serving learners over a lifetime given the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19?

Our commitment to student success should not diminish merely because a learner elects to enroll in an alternative credential program instead of a traditional bachelor’s degree program. Indeed, we are starting to understand that both pathways can lead to the positive outcomes that we seek for our students, like gainful employment. As a result, I recommend that we apply an equity lens to lifelong learning to ensure that we are best serving all learners.


The window of the 60-year curriculum begins at the freshman year of college. But, the pandemic will potentially deepen inequalities over a lifetime. We need to think about lifelong learning over a true lifetime – from cradle to grave. Possible strategies include:

  • Incorporate alternative credentials into high school-to-college guided pathways.
  • Extend guided pathways from college and into and through careers.


We leverage market research to identify potential areas of growth. But, we rarely apply an equity lens to this research when opportunity is not distributed evenly. We should discover not only where there are skills gaps, but also for whom. Possible strategies include:

  • Apply equity lens to program development processes.
  • Commit to helping move the market where it needs to move and make this clear in marketing and recruitment.


Our student support services are distributed unevenly, but underserved populations usually have both the most immediate need for attainment and the greatest barriers to success. We need to explore opportunities to provide complementary wraparound services for noncredit learners. Possible strategies include:

  • Offer career services tailored to a multistage life, including professional coaching.
  • Use development resources to fund social work-like support to help learners survive and succeed.


Employer partnerships are a channel for recruiting learners. But, the partnerships are typically limited to curriculum development and tuition benefits. Higher education can help employers think about expanding options for investing in employee development, particularly given how the pandemic has negatively impacted the financial stability of many corporate partners. Possible strategies include:

  • Experiment with work-and-learn programs that incorporate learning in the workday.
  • Modularize long-term programs to match available financial resources of employers.

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