This morning, the Centre Daily Times published an opinion piece by Rob Wonderling, the chairperson of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, in which he calls for greater attention to the needs of the rising “centennial” generation—the young people who follow the Millennials and who now make up 25 percent of the population, greater in size than the Millennials. Part of the effort, he emphasized, must be greater attention to innovation in higher education:
We must begin now to transform Pennsylvania’s postsecondary experience into a forward-looking, technologically advanced and consumer driven system that encourages rigorous inquiry, prepares people for real-time job opportunities and serves as a means of lifelong learning.
Wonderling chaired the Governor’s Commission on Postsecondary Education in 2012, which developed a menu of ideas for improving the role of higher education in the new society. He lists five of those ideas in the article. Interestingly, three of these priorities speak directly to the university’s continuing education/outreach mission:
· A passport for lifelong learning to continually re-engage citizens who will need to refresh and update their skill sets for an ever-changing technology-driven world.
· A 21st century innovation agenda for our commonwealth to serve as a magnet for entrepreneurs from around the globe.
· Repositioning our public state colleges and universities to be the “go-to source” for continuing education for lifelong learning for future millennials, centennials and beyond.
This re-confirmation of continuing education and outreach as part of the public mission of higher education is good to hear. For well over a century, our land grant universities have been committed to public outreach and continuing education, dating back to the creation of Agricultural Extension in the late 19th century, when the nation needed to improve agricultural production in order to fuel the combined forces of immigration and urbanization that were essential for the country’s success in the Industrial Revolution. Throughout my career at Penn State—dating back to the late 1960s—a strong centralized continuing education function ensured that faculty across all disciplines could innovate without financial risk to develop research transfer conferences, training and development collaborations with employers, and adult education classes both on and off campus. Programs like Management Development Services and the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) regularly helped businesses across the Commonwealth to train their employees and to develop new capabilities. Continuing education also meant extending the undergraduate and graduate degree programs to adults through evening and weekend courses and—through media ranging from correspondence study to television, satellite, and, today, online learning—to homes and worksites across the country and beyond.
Today, while much attention has shifted to online delivery, there remains a need for more traditional continuing education formats that maintain the 19th century Agricultural Extension movement’s vision of the academic researcher working side-by-side with the farmer in his fields. Ultimately, University outreach—whether it is traditional continuing education or technology-based outreach—must be multi-modal in order to best serve the needs of individuals and their communities. Rob Wonderling’s call for a renewed commitment to lifelong learning reinforces the value of a strong centralized support system that helps faculty identify needs, find the program format that best respondsd to the need, and to deliver strong responses based in faculty research and teaching strengths across disciplines.