Part One: The Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education

In the mid-nineteeth century and in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War—around the same time as the founding of Georgia Tech—American higher education was in a state of flux, much like the one it finds itself in today. The needs of a growing nation demanded a shift from using the age-old classical European model for educating a small slice of the population to coping with the effects of an industrial revolution. It was a new age of machines that would need factories, businesses, railroads, mechanized farms, and new technologies to support them.

The nineteenth century was a period of experimentation in education. New universities were created to serve students interested in engineering and the sciences. Existing institutions, such as Brown University, experimented with more flexible pathways, including shorter degree programs than the typical four years. The bachelor of science was created at Harvard University during this era to recognize and give currency to learning in the emerging science disciplines.

The Morrill Act of 1862 was landmark legislation that created a national network of public universities focused on the practical needs of the country. Today there is a new industrial revolution and a new machine age, driven by many of the same forces that were at work at Georgia Tech’s founding and requiring the same reimagining of higher education. But America in the twenty-first century is also different in fundamental ways.

Global communications, artificially intelligent machines, automation, data in previously unimaginable quantities, and accelerating cycles of innovation, for example, are transforming the nature of work and the workplace.

Workers in the twenty-first century enter workplaces where knowledge churns at an accelerating rate and skills must be renewed to remain relevant. Graduate degrees and credentials signifying mastery of specific skills that would have propelled past generations through careers spanning forty years or more are becoming less important than acquiring skills that grow over decades and allow individuals to master the churn of knowledge.

Moreover, there are fewer 18- to 24-year- old Americans in the college pipeline. Younger and older learners are already challenging the idea of what it means to be a Georgia Tech student. An increasing percentage of Georgia Tech undergraduates enter with two or more semesters of college credit.

College-level education is experienced by high school and middle school students in ever-increasing numbers. These students are ethnically and economically more diverse than previous generations. The demand for citizens who are literate in twenty-first century skills requires engagement with even younger learners, even if they never actually enroll in a formal program of study.

Aspirations are also different. Current students report that their heroes are visionaries who can combine disciplinary skills to address the grand challenges of science and society. When asked what the Georgia Tech Class of 2040 will be studying, today’s students are as likely to mention space, robotics, sustainability, and socioeconomic equity as fixed disciplines like computer science, engineering, science, or business. This kind of symphonic thinking is what is increasingly demanded by students and employers alike.

All of this implies that the purpose and structure of higher education will need to shift to keep pace with changes in society and careers. Instead of the industrial model of education, with a prescribed timeline and curricula delivered largely in formal classroom settings, education in the future will need to be more flexible. The successful universities will be those which invest in the pipeline to help students acquire and renew skills not only through formalized degrees and credentials but with programs, products, and services that are relevant and valuable throughout their lifetimes.

The Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education

The overarching recommendation of the Commission is an ambitious proposal called the Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education (the Georgia Tech Commitment). It is a concept, enabled by the initiatives outlined in Part Two of this report, unlike anything that exists today: a future for college not conceived only as a physical place one enters at a particular age and exits when a degree is completed, but rather as a platform for the increasingly diverse—in age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—population of learners that Georgia Tech will serve.

This platform will blend in-person and digital learning experiences. Advising and professional coaching that starts much earlier in high school will provide students multiple pathways through the undergraduate and graduate experience and will be sustained for a lifetime by renewable learning with multiple on- and off-ramps beyond degrees and certificates from Georgia Tech.

This idea takes on special meaning as a new understanding of how, when, and why people learn emerges and as the responsibilities of a public research university to society are redefined in the twenty-first century. It is a concept that remains centered on Georgia Tech’s commitment to the highest caliber of research and education that improves the lives of the people of the state, the nation, and the world.

The Need for the Georgia Tech Commitment

The demand for a traditional, residential Georgia Tech education is growing, and since there is limited physical capacity for residential students, the Institute has become necessarily more selective. While this has helped Georgia Tech’s reputation as an elite research university, selectivity does not address the most important long-term trends in higher education identified in the report Discovering the Drivers of Change in Higher Education (Georgia Tech 2016), namely, the decline in the supply of high school graduates applying to college. If Georgia Tech’s growth is to continue, it will come in the form of learners who are either much younger or who are older and underserved by research universities.

The needs of these learners—regardless of age—are shifting. Students in grades K-12 who are in the pipeline to college are increasingly arriving on the campus with learning experiences unlike their predecessors. Meanwhile, current undergraduate and graduate students are facing an economy in which industries expand and contract with alarming speed and where the job market will look wholly unfamiliar to them by the time they reach the midpoints of their careers. Mid-career professionals are trying to figure out what skills they need and how to acquire them to keep ahead in their professional fields.

A group of people standing around a banner for the College of ComputingGeorgia Tech already sees the beginning of the trend toward a more flexible timeline for education. The Commission agrees with the many experts who believe that Georgia Tech graduates will spend their entire professional lives in workplaces transformed by a modern industrial revolution. As basic job-related knowledge quickly becomes obsolete, so-called “whole-person skills” that emphasize metacognition, communication, synthesis, drive, persistence, and other character values that are predictors of an individual’s ability to adapt to rapid change loom large when compared to fixed inventories of competencies.

Knowledge is churning at an ever-faster rate, and as a result, so too is the education needed to stay ahead in school and keep up in almost any job. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to redefine the roles of traditional knowledge workers has implications for success in the global information economy, which will demand that workers have new skills and competencies. Workers are already worried about whether their education is in sync with what is needed for lifetime employment.

A report by the Pew Research Center (2016) found that 87 percent of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to stay current in the workplace. For these individuals, the need for additional education and training is not determined by an arbitrary date on a calendar. Increasingly, education for these workers is experienced episodically: they seek learning experiences because of life events, not because it is expected of them.

The goal of prior generations might have been success in jobs marked by stability, often with a single employer. By 2040, careers will be marked by experiences and engagements that are highly personalized. What we today think of as a workforce of contractors and freelancers will become commonplace as more white-collar workers are employed in a gig economy in which individuals may change jobs and employers more than a dozen times and may engage in as many as five different careers over the course of their working lives.

It is not a coincidence that WeWork™, the second-largest privately-owned company in the world, has been built to meet the exploding demand for co-working spaces where work-at- home, freelance, and entrepreneurial workers can experience the social benefits of being part of a communal workforce while retaining their flexibility and autonomy.

In early 2017, the Commission launched the #GT2040 project, an effort to engage current Georgia Tech stakeholders in a discussion about the future. The #GT2040 project revealed the extent to which current Georgia Tech students choose visionary role models—people whose accomplishments are not easily captured in a résumé but rather conceive of their skills and experience as contributing to a brand that has unique value.

Today’s students see themselves over the next two decades employed in fields such as space exploration, virtual reality, sustainability, AI, and quantum computing, which barely exist as recognizable disciplines now but likely will emerge as drivers of the world’s economy by 2040.

It is likely that Georgia Tech students will place new demands on the Institute and the role they expect it to play after graduation. The familiar world of credits, grades, degrees, and transcripts is rapidly being replaced by a flatter, networked world where commoditized information delivery lives alongside personalized services like advising, mentoring, and coaching, experiences that are not so easily commoditized.

The boundaries of Georgia Tech’s engagement with its alumni are also being redrawn. Alumni want to know that the Institute will be there for them as their needs change and evolve with the new world of work and play. The Georgia Tech Commitment makes this promise concrete.

The #GT2040 Project

Some kind of incomprehensible graphicThe #GT2040 project was launched with an interactive exhibit entitled “Creating Georgia Tech which invited faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and others to imagine themselves on the first day of class in the year 2040 and answer the questions:

“Who are you…?”  “Where are you…?” “What are you doing…?”

Hundreds of participants shared their ideas, left photographs, uploaded videos, and participated in online polls.

The #GT2040 project told us today’s students expect that Georgia Tech will become more diverse, more tied to the urban landscape of Atlanta, and more imaginative in the use of technology used or learning. Participants did not expect to be tied to classrooms, and a surprising number of them thought they would be linking into classes from Mars. Very few mentioned traditional majors. Many identified with studying the challenges facing the world, not academic disciplines.

A video showing some of the ideas captured from interviews is available at

Lifetime Education

What is the Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education?

Right now, a Georgia Tech education has a beginning and an end. Students apply for admission. They enroll in programs. They receive a well-recognized credential. These students and their experiences are at the core of the Georgia Tech mission. This core student population will not disappear, but given dwindling numbers of students in the college pipeline, increasing costs, and space constraints for scaling the functions that serve these students, it is unlikely to grow much at all.

The Georgia Tech Commitment imagines a future not marked by arbitrary entries on a calendar, but one with numerous entry and exit points where students associate with rather than enroll at Georgia Tech. The idea of an admissions office as the sole gatekeeper to Georgia Tech will make less sense in an environment where learning is always on, so instead students establish and activate learning engagements.

The Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education

  • Prepare for New Kinds of Learners
  • Create New Ways to Acquire Knowledge
  • Establish Lifelong Ties with Alumni
  • Address the Churn of Knowledge
  • Provide a Lifetime Educational Platform

Some learners will arrive to complete a specific learning task or experience and leave once that task is completed. Flexible timelines will allow students to take individual courses or shorter semesters and more easily pursue work and research opportunities, because learning, working, and playing flow naturally from one to the other.

These lifetime learning experiences will not be limited to a central physical campus. Georgia Tech students might be learning from anywhere in the world. They will engage with the Institute in new physical spaces that are not like a traditional university campus. These spaces might be embedded in a corporate campus, at a co-working space, or alongside retail storefronts, providing social glue for generations of learners who previously had little access to higher education. Spaces like these might provide face-to- face experiences and networking opportunities.

A worldwide network of guides, advisors, mentors, coaches, and role models—some of them virtual—will help students navigate their journey through learning, no matter their point in life.

The collective work of students inside and outside the classroom will result in traditional degrees, but also a new set of credentials will emerge that will measure and communicate learning and can be stacked together over the course of a lifetime.  

Much of what seems familiar about the university as a place will be transformed. Work has already begun on Georgia Tech’s Library Next initiative, which is replacing the idea of a university library as a physical repository of books with the idea that libraries today are used more for networking, building communities, and creating knowledge or designs than for simple consumption of static information (Bennett et al. 2014).

For the Georgia Tech Commitment to become a reality over the next two decades, the Institute must redefine its fundamental approach to educational delivery, discussed in the following subsections.

Eliminate artificial barriers between conventional schooling and higher education

The boundaries between K-12 schools and higher education are an artifact from last century, when the United States experienced a period of unparalleled economic growth, fueled in part by a progressive system of public education. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20 th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country.

These educated high school graduates powered the prosperity of the twentieth century and the college-for- all movement that followed in the last quarter of the century. The world is clearly a far different place today than it was 100 years ago, with success more dependent on knowledge than ever before. There is no reason that the chasm between the K-12 system and higher education needs to exist.

Integrating college content into secondary schools is the first building block of the Georgia Tech Commitment. It smoothes the transition from high school to college for students and families. It allows students to benefit from Georgia Tech when they are ready—some earlier, and some later, than the typical age of eighteen. It connects motivated high school students with Georgia Tech learning earlier and makes it possible to maintain that connection.

The Library Next Project

Creating library services and spaces to match the changing research, teaching, and learning needs of Georgia Tech.

Redefining Educational Delivery

  • Eliminate artificial barriers between conventional schooling and higher education
  • Allow for flexible calendars and pathways through Georgia Tech
  • Award new kinds of credentials that recognize continual learning
  • Allow for learners to personally interact with Georgia Tech experts and services in key locations around the globe
  • Provide an advising and coaching network for life

Lifetime Education

Some of those students will choose to enroll at Georgia Tech, but many others will find other pathways. Some will enter the workforce directly, others will choose another kind of postsecondary learning experience. Still others, in search of advice and help, will consider Georgia Tech a trusted mentor, coach, or partner. Regardless of the pathway, what Georgia Tech offers is an on-ramp to a future that has been enriched by a unique learning experience.

Students who take advantage of early on-ramps to Georgia Tech programs will enter the Institute college with a significant number of transferable credits, enhanced academic experiences, and free elective time in a traditional undergraduate program and will demand more flexible learning options.​

Charles Isbell

Allow for flexible calendars and pathways through Georgia Tech​

When the University of Chicago opened in 1890, it pioneered a new idea in the annals of the academic calendar: the quarter system. A handful of institutions (Georgia Tech among them) followed, but for the most part, at most institutions the cadence of the academic calendar—whether two starts or four starts a year—is similar to what it was a century ago.

But now the plethora of choices available to students offers the potential to reshape the traditional academic calendar with a mix of multiple start dates and different-length semesters.

With the Georgia Tech Commitment, learners can distribute learning experiences across their lives, as they see fit. Some will continue to front-load the experience as they do now, while others will spread it out and come to education throughout their lives. The Georgia Tech Commitment will provide an easy on-ramp for adults in their current careers or allow them to change careers with a solid academic grounding. This will inject a diversity of generations and work experiences into the campus culture.

This flexible experience is already happening as students are moving through college at different speeds, mixing learning opportunities that include courses from various providers and campuses, and combining learning experiences like co-ops, undergraduate research, and service learning. These experiences do not end even when the student obtains a credential.

Georgia Tech is already witnessing a growing demand for more educational experiences from holders of past credentials. Nearly 25 percent of students in existing distance and online master’s degree programs have already earned master’s degrees, and 4 percent hold doctoral degrees. Right now, many institutions consider programs that serve individuals who have already earned a degree as continuing education and offer a bounty of degree and certificate programs.

But in this new economy, those programs are often a poor match for real needs, in terms of time and money. Providing a lifetime commitment to learning at the individual course level rather than at the bundled program level or offering lower-cost options, much like Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) and online Master of Science in Analytics degrees, are ways to deal with these problems.

The Georgia Tech Commitment gives students the ability to better match learning to particular episodes of their lives, to start and stop at multiple points throughout their educational journeys, making it much easier to compile learning outcomes into something that has currency in the job market.​

Award new kinds of credentials that recognize continual learning

The current array of legacy degrees does not adequately represent shorter-term modules that will be stacked together throughout a lifetime of continual learning. Inventing new credentials will offer the opportunity to create more efficient packages that certify continual learning. The foundation of traditional degrees is time spent in a seat; the depth of learning is equal to time spent learning. Credentials offered through the Georgia Tech Commitment could also break the historic underpinnings of the traditional degree by defining depth of learning through competency (what the learner actually knows) instead of time spent in the classroom.

Georgia Tech must consider other ways to recognize, accept, and reward learning through microcredentials that can be accessed anytime in a career. Microcredentials can help by packaging emerging knowledge with a brief shelf life into short programs that can stand on their own or as add-ons to traditional degrees.

At the rate new knowledge is being created and new skills are being demanded by employers, most workers cannot take two or four years from their working lives to achieve yet another degree as the only credential for learning. Beyond recognition, the churn of knowledge in workplaces will increasingly demand that higher education offer credible renewal of skills and basic knowledge. New educational products will be needed to meet that demand.

Build a Georgia Tech network in key locations around the globe

Even today, when it is easy to connect with anyone anywhere, physical location still matters. Take, for example, students enrolled in the OMSCS at Georgia Tech. The emotional attachment to Georgia Tech is real and can be witnessed at every well-attended networking event or meetup hosted by the Institute in cities around the world. Even students with no prior connection to the university are hungry to interact with their classmates and with Georgia Tech instructors, advisors, and alumni. Students will go out of their way to attend these events in their hometowns.

Others place such value on physical engagement with Georgia Tech that they travel hundreds of miles to attend graduation on campus—arriving in Atlanta from as far as India, Japan, and Ecuador. Much like Apple built retail stores to curate its ecosystem to give consumers a personalized experience, Georgia Tech must create accessible spaces for personal engagement.

We can think of these spaces as a twenty-first century reinvention of the “experiment station,” an important outgrowth of the Morrill Act of 1862 that brought industrial and mechanical expertise closer to the citizens who needed it. For most of the twentieth century, Georgia Tech economic outreach in Georgia was accomplished through engineering experiment stations.

The Georgia Tech Commitment would replicate the mission of the experiment stations by providing cost-effective, high-quality educational services and experiences to Georgia Tech students and others by matching personnel, expertise, and facilities to the needs of the communities served. These Georgia Tech presences may be in retail settings, corporate campuses, and community social centers, or they may add educational depth to the social glue that is driving the worldwide growth of co-working communal offices.

In a gig economy when fewer workers are moored to a full-time employer, such spaces will become critical to lifelong learning and career success. Students now graduating from college seek out workplaces where sharing and collaboration can take place. Georgia Tech can meet that need by offering a network of locations with a mixture of shared or networked spaces, problem-solving or enrichment experts, access to special facilities, and opportunities to interact in person​ or online with individuals who have unique experiences to share but who would not otherwise be accessible.​

Provide an advising and coaching network for life

The next generation of students coming into higher education requires Georgia Tech to rethink how it guides students through their college experience. This next generation also offers a unique opportunity for Georgia Tech to build an interconnected advising system that serves Georgia’s elementary and secondary schools as well as Georgia Tech alumni.

The first step to reinventing advising at Georgia Tech is to build a network of virtual and in-person resources to provide better college counseling for Georgia’s K-12 students. The Institute needs to take a more active role in high school advising for college to reverse the college-going statistics among low-income students and shape how students are being prepared for the rigors of higher education.

To better serve those students once in college, Georgia Tech must construct a comprehensive student advising system that takes advantage of appropriate student-level data. This system will help them negotiate the often confusing and massive course catalogs and direct their learning pathways to graduation.

Advising doesn’t necessarily end with graduation. The Georgia Tech Commitment imagines a virtual advising system, a Personal Board of Directors, and electronic portfolios of graduates’ work and evidence of learning that students take with them throughout their careers. This advising network would allow graduates access to career resources, one-on- one online coaching sessions, and face-to- face meetups in cities around the world.​

A New Model for Higher Education

One thing that makes the Georgia Tech Commitment distinctive is the importance of the episodic learner, whose needs vary but begin much earlier in life than is traditional in higher education.

Driven by needs that arise unpredictably, episodic learners will arrive at Georgia Tech outside the restrictions of well-established academic calendars and have learning experiences marked by an intensity of the sort needed to master complex material.

Guy standing in front of a green screenThe Georgia Tech Commitment relies not on programmatic or classroom experiences so much as collaboration, networking, skills renewal, and expansion of knowledge—all experiences which might imply a vastly different business model. Rather than pay tuition to the Institute for courses or a degree, new learners might pay an annual subscription fee. It is even possible that traditional tuition-paying students would benefit if a portion of their fees were reserved for future-proofing by a kind of insurance program that offered renewal on demand to cope with the churn of knowledge. Georgia Tech learners are being prepared for workplaces where nonrenewable skills quickly become obsolete. In fact, the ideas of agile learners and skill renewal through affordable career sabbaticals are enabled by the Georgia Tech Commitment.

Much like the land-grant universities revolutionized higher education in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Commission believes the Georgia Tech Commitment anticipates the generational changes coming to higher education and the future of the workplace by adding to the Institute’s mission; it is a commitment to serve new stakeholders with core programs and new educational products.

In fact, part of the challenge of the Georgia Tech Commitment is that to achieve it, entirely new modes of operation must be invented, new approaches to fundraising must be developed, and a workforce must emerge that is composed of not only traditional tenure-track faculty but also new professionals with new skills. This new workforce must be defined, nurtured, and recruited. No institution, public or private, that we are aware of has undertaken such an ambitious expansion of its mission.

The Commission envisions a pathway to the Georgia Tech Commitment that begins in early 2018 with the formation of working groups and teams. The first goal is the development of the Academic Master Plan (AMP), which will define the concrete steps, investments, and development schedule for the initiatives of the Georgia Tech Commitment that are laid out in Part Two of this report.

By almost every measure, Georgia Tech is significantly stronger today than it has been at any point in history. So, the institution enters a period of profound change in higher education from a position of strength. American colleges and universities face extraordinary challenges and rapid change in the decade ahead. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing higher education is a pressing need to adapt traditional teaching, financial, and research models to the demands of the twenty-first century.

Over the next decade, competition at the top of higher education will intensify. Science, technology, engineering, and math fields will continue to lead in funding and influence. Calls for more practice-based learning will grow louder. Greater partnership building and more unbundling of academic silos will occur. And nearly every academic institution will rush to embrace globalization and technology by securing international influence and digital learning tools.

Given all of these developments, the single best way for Georgia Tech to lead in the twenty-first century will be to become even more adaptable, further fusing premier teaching and cutting-edge research within an intimate and collaborative environment.