Four Major Changes Critical for Post-Secondary Institutions’ Longevity
I’ll make a maybe-controversial statement and say the primary goal of higher education should be jobs and economic mobility. There aren’t many who have the luxury of learning for the sake of learning, at this point. For those who do, there are increasingly more open and free options for them to pursue their hobbies without going into significant debt. Higher education is about preparing people for careers and success in life. But the demands on the workforce have changed drastically and higher education needs to change too.
The concept of a career is very different than what it was for my parents’ generation, different than what it was even 10 years ago. Gone are the days when employees would stay in the same job for their entire career. Current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show people hold an average of 15 jobs from the time they’re 18 to 46 years of age, with 5.4 periods of unemployment in that timeframe.  For some, that may be reflective of the newer trend of ‘job hopping,’ while for many others, it means getting laid off or displaced due to shifting economies, cheaper labor overseas or technological advancements. College degrees are no longer enough for many career paths, and many find themselves in a highly competitive atmosphere with expectations of constantly improving their skills and keeping up with the rapid advances in technology. The concept of lifelong learning has never been more important.
This means, more and more, the majority of learners fall into the “non-traditional” bucket. Whether they are older, supporting families or juggling jobs, or just simply not going to move onto campus to dedicate four years of their life towards a degree, the realities are they aren’t interested in or available for a traditional degree program. They need more on-demand, bite-sized chunks of learning that can lead to real results in a short amount of time, and they need recognition for each unit of that learning as they go along. They need credit of some sort for the things they already know. They need to understand the skills and competencies they need to develop, and what their options are for doing so.
Most universities and colleges are not designed to accommodate these types of learners. For those open to innovation and redesign, there is tremendous opportunity for innovation and impact:
1. From a prix fixe menu to a buffet
Courses are big and expensive, both to take and to run. The age-old model of a 15-or-so week-long set of prescribed, linear curriculum is, frankly, old. Learners in today’s world need more flexible, granular sets of learning built around specific competencies and built for buffet-style learning. In other words, come and learn what you need to know, as you need to know it. This means the freedom not to be bound to specific start dates or courses, or forced to sit through long progressions of lectures in order to get the information they need or just to earn the credit.
2. From entry level to skilled
Most of the traditional-aged students are fresh out of high school and working towards the beginning of a career. They are entry-level and tabula rasa for universities to draw on. The growing majority of non-traditional learners are already skilled and have experience in certain fields, but need help refreshing or up-leveling those skills or taking their knowledge and applying it toward a new industry or field. They need recognition for prior learning so they can accelerate to the skills and competencies they need for their careers — not get stuck in entry-level, general requirements.
3. From classrooms to clouds and PJs
Institutions that only cater to young, students studying in campus libraries are missing a huge population eager and ready to learn. But, again, these learners are not going to move onto campus for four years to work towards a degree. Instead, they need to be able to learn at night or at odd hours, from their own living rooms or from halfway around the globe. They need 24/7 access to support. Online degree programs are not new, but they still aren’t readily available from a majority of the so-called “brick and mortar” institutions. This is a missed opportunity for the institutions and the learners.
4. From rubber stamp to portfolio
Let’s face it; the degree isn’t an incredibly effective credential anymore. It’s abstract and conveys very little, if any, information about the actual learning that occurred. Two people with the same degree may have had very different grades, courses, specializations, professors, projects and more, but none of that is captured and communicated with the degree. Employers want more. Graduate schools want more. Learners want more. Non-traditional degree programs should be about more than the degree. These programs should capture more, reward more so learners can build a portfolio of skills and competencies more easily translatable to jobs and other advancement. Also, by bringing learning recognition down to the more granular, skill level, learners are empowered to craft customized, personal pathways. This is, of course, where the Open Badges  work comes into play. Institutions can use badges to recognize the learning along the way, as well as surface learning options. Badges are digital, information-based credentials that can be combined and stacked to tell a more complete story about what a learner knows and can do.
There are already institutions seeing these opportunities and responding in innovative ways. The most noted is Southern New Hampshire University. Their College for America offers competency-based learning units to students online. Students select the competencies they want to develop — perhaps just one, or a complete cluster — attributable to a degree. Students pay one fee and can take as many units as they want in a year. It’s truly an all-you-can eat, anytime-anywhere, competency-based experience. Lots of people are excited about this, including the many employers they already have agreements with for hiring out of their program.
The new focus on non-traditional degree programming represents a fundamental shift in how we recognize learning and the goals we set for higher education. It’s about flexibility, granularity and access. It’s a tough shift for some, but it’s necessary and important to give more learners what they really need. This can only mean good things for learners as well as the higher education institutions themselves — extended reach, greater leverage and more opportunity.
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 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “National Longitudinal Surveys: Frequently Asked Questions,” June 12, 2013. Accessed at http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsfaqs.htm#anch41
 Jeanne Meister, “Job Hopping Is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials: Three Ways to Prevent a Human Resource Nightmare,” Forbes Magazine, August 14, 2012. Accessed at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2012/08/14/job-hopping-is-the-new-normal-for-millennials-three-ways-to-prevent-a-human-resource-nightmare/’
 Mozilla, “Open Badges.” Accessed at http://www.openbadges.org
Author Perspective: Analyst