Serving Education’s Third Sector

BY Jeff Cobb

An graphic showing various organizations that serve the third sector of education

Most of us are aware of and have personally experienced the pre-K through high school system of education that serves our children.

Most of us are also aware of the higher education system that grants degrees to the fortunate among us. (Around 45 percent of the U.S. population holds a postsecondary degree of some type.)

We are all, arguably, much less aware of a third sector of education that quietly serves the millions of adults who have moved beyond secondary and post-secondary education and are now making their way through “the other 50 years,” that long stretch of life in which we are largely on our own to determine how we will continue to learn and grow.

It’s time that awareness rose. Dramatically.

Why Education’s Third Sector Matters So Much

As I suggested several years ago in The Other Education Crisis, a large percentage of the U.S. (and global) workforce is already outside the reach of our elementary and secondary education schools. Those institutions, as important as they are, simply aren’t going to be of much help to these people (including me and, I am assuming, you) as they face a range of challenges that are changing the very nature of work and life. These include:

  • A rapid shift in the nature of most jobs and work in general
    We’ve seen this before. In the past, new technologies massively changed the way agricultural work was done, spurred the industrial revolution, and more recently, gave rise to the “knowledge economy.” Technology is at is again. There are few jobs that won’t be touched – and changed – by robotics and artificial intelligence. New and different jobs will emerge, but the shift will require workers to acquire new skills, and more importantly, new ways of thinking and a high degree of adaptability.
  • Continuing consequences of outsourcing and offshoring
    As economist Steven Rattner has put it, “technology is not the prime culprit behind our languid employment and income growth. That honor belongs to globalization, and particularly the ability of companies to substitute far less expensive and increasingly skilled labor in developing countries.” There is no reason to expect this trend to relent, regardless of whatever measures governments may attempt. The economic benefits to employers are just too large.
  • A world in which “jobs are over”
    This point may just be a logical conclusion of the first two, but it’s a conclusion that is important enough to be worth calling out on its own. I’ve taken the phrase “jobs are over” from Heather McGowan’s excellent four-part series on the issue as I think it sums up the situation so well. In the U.S., we are increasingly a nation of freelancers and even those who do hold traditional jobs do not hold them anywhere near as long as their parents did – nor can they expect the jobs they do hold to require the same capabilities over time.
  • Continually increasing lifespans – and workspans
    It’s no secret that we continue to live longer. It’s also no secret that retirement will be elusive for a growing percentage of the population, at least in the United States. Average U.S. life expectancy is hovering around 79 years right now. By 2030, it is expected to reach 90 years for females in most developed countries. The “other 50 years,” in other words, is getting longer, and most of us – at least in the U.S. – are going to need to be (and probably want to be) working during most of that time.

Those are just some of the biggest trends. Clearly, in an environment like this, there is a tremendous need for continual learning. Not all – probably not even most – of that learning will take the form of formal education and training, but certainly a large amount of it will. A key question, then, is who will provide it? How will this third sector of education be served in a way that helps to meet these challenges?

Serving Education’s Third Sector

Graphic depicting Education's Third Sector

There are, and always have been, a range of players that serve the third sector, but options are proliferating, and they are increasingly fragmented and confusing. The market for adult lifelong learning is a patchwork of trade and professional associations, college and university community programs, community learning centers, free online courses of every type and quality level imaginable, info product pitches from self-appointed “gurus,” and a flood of videos, tweets, posts, and likes.

There may never be anything as cohesive as a “system” to serve the other 50 years, but surely there could be a more cohesive and coordinated vision.

It is possible to imagine, for example, a great deal more government focus on adult education, but so far that seems unlikely (and it has grown less so under the current administration in the U.S.). A McGraw-Hill Foundation report argued some years ago that adult education has traditionally been the “the poor step-child of the education system,” receiving less than 10 percent of the amount that goes to K-12 and less than 5 percent of the amount that goes to higher ed. Not much has changed.

It is also possible to imagine a strong working alliance among some of the major institutions that serve and/or have a major stake in the success of adult learners. Meaningful collaboration among, for example, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the Association for Talent Development (ATD), the Conference Board, and the American Association for Adult Education (AAACE), could produce a strong vision for the direction adult learning needs to take and a coordinated plan for supporting the vision.

While there are occasional reports of collaboration between corporations and academia (and relatively fewer between associations and academia or corporations), a meaningful, ongoing alliance across major players in the adult learning market does not exist. Fortunately, the quiet work of serving the sector continues anyway, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how much more impact we could be having in supporting adult learners in a rapidly changing world.

As my list above suggest – and as I have often said in my speaking and writing – I think associations, in particular, have a critical role to play, but that is mainly because, as institutions, they represent the great diversity of voices that need to be represented in developing a vision for adult learning.

Whether that happens or not, the third sector is there, and it continues to grow as a critical part of our economy and our future.


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