What Does the Future Hold for Lifelong Learning?

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/LuckyBusiness
No longer an endpoint for many learners, a formal degree is becoming just the start of an ongoing educational process that spans their careers and beyond.
  • A new report from CarringtonCrisp describes a rapidly evolving market for professional development where employers and workers view continual reskilling and upskilling as essential to success.
  • While business schools are positioned to meet the demand for short-form nondegree options, they face growing competition from an array of nontraditional providers.
  • To attract prospective students, business schools must offer rich, flexible, and customized educational experiences designed to help learners develop the skills they need when they need them.

Short-form skills-based online learning has been around since the mid-20th century, when mainframe computers were first introduced. However, accessible and affordable online education has only become widely available over the past 25 years. The massive surge in demand for nondegree education was fueled by three pivotal events.

The first occurred in 2001, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched OpenCourseWare, which enabled the public to access select course materials online for free. The second was in 2005 when YouTube was founded, allowing anyone to more easily create, share, and watch content. Finally, in 2008, the University of Manitoba in Canada delivered the first massive open online course, or MOOC, to the public for free.

These three events have led to the emergence of a universe of educational platforms, from Coursera and Udemy to edX and LinkedIn Learning. The demand for ongoing training has only strengthened since the pandemic lockdowns accelerated the adoption of online learning formats.

Today, it’s clear that demand for online learning will never return to pre-pandemic levels, as students demand education delivered in a variety of formats—face-to-face, hybrid, hyflex, synchronous, and asynchronous—often within the same programs. The research consultancy HTF Market Intelligence predicts that the global market for lifelong learning will increase by 990 billion USD by 2030.

But what does the future hold for executive education and lifelong learning? What forms of learning are most likely to see the greatest market growth? And are business schools prepared to anticipate and respond to these trends?

These questions are explored in detail in “The Future of Lifelong and Executive Education,” a new report from CarringtonCrisp, a London-based consultancy that works with business schools and other higher education institutions. Its report is based on a survey conducted in late 2023 of 10,000 learners and 1,100 employers across more than 30 countries.

An update of a 2021 survey that the firm conducted jointly with LinkedIn, these findings offer insights into what today’s learners and organizations want and expect from educational providers—as well as how business schools can meet the future needs of this growing market segment. 

Types of Training in Demand

In particular, the report highlights how employers’ attitudes about nondegree education have changed in just the last three years. Today, 19 percent of jobs posted in the United States do not require degrees, up from 12 percent in 2021.

When asked what factors were driving this change, employers pointed to the need to improve productivity and efficiency (51 percent), introduce new technologies (47 percent), develop high-potential workers (43 percent), and remain competitive (43 percent). 

But when asked what types of professional development they had used over the past two years, the highest percentage of respondents mentioned industry certifications. In fact, MBA, executive MBA, and specialized master’s degree programs ranked in the bottom half of popular options:

What training have employers utilized over the past two years?

Industry certifications


Individual coaching


Short-course nondegree executive education


Customized programs


Online courses from a business school




Executive MBA


Specialized and executive master’s programs




Self-directed badged programs


Continued professional development




It might seem surprising that microcredentials were the least-mentioned training option, given the increased attention that microcredentialing programs have received in recent years. However, the report notes that many programs on the list above could fall under the microcredential category, which could explain this result. 

‘The Busiest Part of the Market’

One interesting finding is that employers noted that they cannot always find the training programs they need to upskill employees in areas such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, innovation, agility, creativity, and crisis management. In each of the 36 competencies listed, more than 30 percent of employers indicated that they could not always find the educational options they needed.

In the subject areas of blockchain, change management, metaverse, and managing across cultures, the number of employers who said they could not find sufficient training equaled or exceeded the number of those who could.

This perception could be driving organizations to design more deliberate lifelong learning strategies for their workforces. A majority of the employers responding to the survey “mostly” or “definitely” agreed with the following statements:

Mostly Agree

Definitely Agree

I anticipate our organization developing a formal lifelong learning strategy to upskill and reskill staff.

51% 26%

I anticipate our organization developing systems to track and monitor both informal and formal learning among our employees.

44% 30%

As employers look to the future, they anticipate that they will seek out the following types of programs:

  • Online learning—80 percent
  • Programs tailored to the needs of their organizations—81 percent
  • Short programs that can be stacked toward degrees—80 percent
  • Flexible short-form learning (microcredentials)—77 percent

Lower but significant percentages of respondents also agreed or mostly agreed that the following offerings would add value to their learning strategies:

  • Individual coaching—71 percent
  • Modules that can be completed in an hour or less—70 percent
  • Readings that cover previous training—67 percent
  • Online learning hubs—67 percent
  • Supplementary on-demand video—65 percent
  • Subscription-based learning models—64 percent
  • Webinars—60 percent

However, even though these survey numbers indicate the growing popularity of nondegree options, other data show a possible lag in response among business schools. According to AACSB’s most recent Business School Questionnaire, the number of nondegree programs offered by its member schools has stayed steady between the 2019–2020 and 2022–2023 academic years. During this time frame, the number of nondegree programs in the United States actually decreased by 5 percent.

These numbers are likely to increase for upcoming surveys, says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp. “If you had asked me just two or three years ago, I would have said schools were not paying enough attention to the nondegree component of their offer,” he says. “However, we are finding that lifelong and executive education is one of the busiest parts of the business education marketplace today.”

What Workers Want To Learn

For their part, individuals intend to pursue future lifelong learning for a range of reasons, from the loss of a job to a desire to switch careers. The top five reasons cited by the learners responding to CarringtonCrisp’s survey include the following:

  • To improve earning potential—27 percent
  • To learn specific skills—25 percent
  • To update or refresh current skill sets—24 percent
  • To quickly acquire new knowledge—21 percent
  • To improve overall employability—20 percent

Like organizations, individual learners appreciate having a range of flexible options available. Although 38 percent of respondents said they prefer face-to-face learning, more expressed a preference for other formats, including:

  • Online, synchronous and asynchronous—50 percent
  • Online, self-paced and on-demand—47 percent
  • Hybrid (both in-person and online)—46 percent
  • Hyflex (in-person and online, synchronous and asynchronous)—40 percent

Learners are especially interested in education that offers flexibility (57 percent), certificates of completion (56 percent), high-quality video (53 percent), and instant online access to content (50 percent). Most respondents described on-demand learning (69 percent), interactions with peers (66 percent), and action learning projects (62 percent) as “very important” or “extremely important.”  Only 48 percent said the same about the use of immersive technologies such as virtual reality. 

Not surprisingly, seven of the top 12 areas where learners most wanted to reskill and upskill involved the adoption of new technology:

In what areas do learners say they most want to develop their skills?

Artificial intelligence




Digital marketing






Data analytics


Digital Transformation


Business development










Although both audiences valued training in new technologies, the survey revealed a slight mismatch between the skills each group prioritized. For instance, learners most wanted to improve their skills in broader areas such as leadership and business development, while employers indicated they needed workers to develop competencies such as agility and crisis management.

“Our sense is that employers are closer to the coal face, which generates immediate skill demands,” Crisp explains. “At the same time, employers have a more strategic view of the next few years and are planning for skills that may not yet be on the horizon of individuals working in specific fields.”

How Are Business Schools Responding?

As Crisp predicts, business schools have been developing new programs or redesigning old ones in response to trends in their markets. Here is a sampling of actions that schools have taken so far:

Doubling down on certifications. During the 2022–23 academic year, the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics at California State University in Northridge (CSUN) launched a certificate-focused learning initiative that was selected as one of AACSB’s 2024 Innovations That Inspire. According to school representatives, a catalyst for the Professional Education Beyond a Degree initiative was the fact that “a number of high-profile employers have eliminated the four-year degree as a hiring criterion.”

The college has integrated third-party certifications throughout its curriculum, including certificate programs developed by SAP, Microsoft, Google, Bloomberg, and HubSpot, as well as those available on LinkedIn Learning. In 2023–24, the college began offering nine co-curricular bootcamps based on certificates offered on the learning platform Coursera to students enrolled at any of CSUN’s nine colleges.

Students now have earned more than 1,800 third-party certifications. The school calls the initiative both “offensive and defensive” and “a tangible and pragmatic response to employer concerns about skills gaps … that both reinstates and reinforces the value of a four-year degree.” 

Going all in on stackable credentials. In 2019, the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in University Park embraced the surge of interest in nondegree-based lifelong learning by redesigning its entire graduate management education portfolio in favor of a course-sharing model that allows students to customize their educations and stack credentials toward degrees.

This stackable model enables “students at all points of their careers … to add credentials as efficiently and affordably as possible,” writes Brian Cameron, Smeal’s associate dean of professional graduate programs and executive education.

“Employers and employees alike recognize that viewing education and work as separate, sequential activities makes much less sense in a world where the pace of change is accelerating.”—W. Brooke Elliott, University of Illinois 

Focusing on flexibility. In 2019, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois in Champaign replaced its full-time on-campus MBA degree with a fully online program that serves as “an expandable ecosystem of credit and noncredit learning opportunities that are stackable toward a full degree.”

The format allows students to work and learn simultaneously, explains W. Brooke Elliott, the school’s executive associate dean of academic programs. “Employers and employees alike recognize that viewing education and work as separate, sequential activities makes much less sense in a world where the pace of change is accelerating.”

Upskilling through apprenticeships. The Graduate Apprenticeship program in the United Kingdom allows learners to work toward degrees over four years—all while continuing to hold full-time jobs. Employers pay a levy to support the apprenticeship program, which is offered at universities across the U.K.

“As we begin to redefine employment amid the rise of AI, upskilling and reskilling will continue to be priorities for organizations,” emphasizes David Steinberg, senior program director of EBS Graduate Apprenticeships at Edinburgh Business School. “Programs such as the Graduate Apprenticeship address the upskilling challenge in ways that benefit all parties involved.”

Learning as an Essential Benefit

Among learners who responded to the CarringtonCrisp report, 78 percent said that they would be more likely to continue working for organizations that prioritized professional development, and 74 percent would be more likely to join an organization that offered lifelong learning as a job benefit.

That said, business schools still are not the first providers employers or learners turn to for nondegree education. When employers were asked what types of providers they were most likely to use for their training needs, business schools were fifth on their collective list:

  • Private training companies—51 percent
  • Professional training bodies—49 percent
  • Consulting firms—43 percent
  • In-house training programs—42 percent
  • Business schools—35 percent

Among learners, business schools were the second-most cited option at 45 percent (behind online learning providers, at 57 percent).

2022 report released in 2022 by AACSB, the global consortium UNICON, and the IEDP reinforces these findings, while suggesting ways that business schools could capture a larger portion of the nondegree education market. For example, schools could form training partnerships with organizations and design educational options that can be scaled to reach thousands of new learners.

More important, the three organizations encourage universities to position themselves as “learning destinations” that offer assets that nontraditional educational providers cannot duplicate, such as cross-disciplinary academic and professional networks, career-building solutions, and research aligned with the future of work.

A key takeaway from the CarringtonCrisp survey is that while there will always be a place for degree-based education, learners and employers are likely to seek out more and more nondegree education over the coming years. Moreover, learners might not want to pursue degrees all at once, but instead “intersperse work and study to complete a degree over a longer period,” Crisp says.

“The challenge for business schools and universities today,” he adds, “is building a lifelong offer that goes beyond degrees, while continuing to deliver excellence in their traditional degree markets.”

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Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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