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Prioritizing Workforce and Professional Ed in Higher Education

Higher education needs to focus on preparing the modern learner not just for graduation but for their lifelong learning journey. 

The modern learner isn’t just looking for the traditional degree anymore; they’re looking for stackable credentials they can earn on their own time to meet their current career goals. This means the institution needs to focus on making workforce and professional education more accessible to all learners. In this interview, Andrea Backman discusses the need to prioritize workforce and professional ed, how to fit this non-credit vision into the traditional institution and what it’ll take to get there.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do modern higher ed institutions need to prioritize workforce and professional education more than they have in the past?

Andrea Backman (AB): What I have been saying for the last few years is that just a college degree isn’t enough. I’ve spent my career focused on issues of access, opening the doors as wide as possible and putting in place supports for students to succeed. But those two steps, which are giant steps in the history of higher education, are not enough.

If students or graduates aren’t experiencing meaningful career trajectories or economic mobility, then institutions have failed them. So, the more higher education can focus on preparing students, long before graduation, the better. Making sure there’s return on investment for the degree is the only way for the higher education model to sustain itself.

Evo: How does non-credit programming and stackability start to fit into this broader vision to make the institution more accessible to non-traditional learners?

AB: A traditional college degree isn’t for everyone. We’re open access—we give every support we can to make it an option for people who want to try, but we also recognize that not all workplaces require a college degree. So, there is tremendous value in providing access through short-form, skill-focused, stackable credentials—both in the non-degree and non-credit spaces. Even better if these can translate into degree credits for those who want them.

A bootcamp, for example, is a great way for individuals to earn a short-form, non-credit certificate. While I still believe in the value of a traditional four-year degree, it’s a substantial commitment that isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone, specifically working adults. So, short-form, non-degree education is critical.

Evo: What are some of the most common obstacles to integrating this kind of programming more centrally into the institution?

AB: I could talk about the challenges, but I work in an institution where there’s a real hunger and belief that skills needed must be baked into the overall experience, which supersedes any obstacles. In fact, we’ve taken the undergraduate general education curriculum, which is approximately 40% of any undergraduate degree program, and completely reworked it. We wanted to teach people, not just the skills needed for general education but also the skills employers need.

We distilled ten skills every employer told us they wanted to see, and we baked them into our general education curriculum. For example, if you’re learning about history, you’re expected to know the subject matter around history, but we also teach students how to be productive employees over time.

There are of course many obstacles. There’s bureaucracy. Many institutions take a lot of time to make decisions. I’m proud that we were able to move quickly, so now every undergraduate student has the opportunity to experience that new skills-based general education curriculum.

Evo: Do you see a new era of higher education emerging, where folks leave with the traditional, formal academic transcript in addition to a much clearer sense of the skills they earned along the way?

AB: Absolutely. Higher education must look beyond traditional academic learning and focus on career-ready skills. At Strayer, while we of course provide the necessary general education courses, we infuse workforce-ready skills into said courses to maximize our students’ ROI and prepare them for success.

Evo: How can colleges and universities start to better integrate and recognize the impact of these non-academic and co-curricular activities into students’ skills development?

AB: Most of our students are working full-time and studying part-time. Higher education institutions must provide flexible opportunities to learn while working. Not every piece of professional writing needs to be an academic research paper. Not every student has the goal of attending graduate school. One of the skills we can teach students is how to better communicate in the workplace, which is different from what we typically do in higher ed. We believe that these skills can help students succeed beyond the classroom.

Evo: How valuable is it to find ways to scale Continuing and Workforce Education offerings to deliver that more robust, cohesive, 60-year curriculum experience to already non-traditional learners?

AB: It’s extremely important. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s not a transaction—it’s a relationship. A student is making a massive commitment, an investment in themselves, and it shouldn’t end the day you graduate. You are part of a network and a community that can help foster learning as well as career development, well-being, self-awareness and social skills.

There are so many different facets to our students. At Strayer, we are focused on the whole-student approach. As president, I’m responsible for student success and career readiness. We have to make sure students do well in the classroom and have the opportunity to increase their skill sets, but we know our students may need other support in their lives, such as childcare, transportation or professional guidance. So, we need to think about how we can scale our offerings in a way that builds a cohesive ecosystem to help these students succeed.

Evo: What are the core building blocks to establishing this more cohesive, lifelong learning model in an industry designed around specific two- or four-year relationships with its customers?

AB: We’ve established peer-to-peer mentoring programs and alumni mentoring programs with students. We sponsor a career strategy week where we bring professionals in from varying industries to talk to students. We have career communities on Facebook that connect students to alumni.

It must be meaningful and useful to individuals as well as bite-sized. What do you need? How do you  continue to connect with our community? We spend a lot of time thinking about that, asking our alumni population what would be useful to them to then create programming that respond to their needs.

Evo: What advice would you share with other leaders trying to build this more cohesive and structured lifelong learning engagement with the learners coming through their doors?

AB: Students should know that you are not just helping them get a degree but changing their lives. You’re providing the opportunity for economic mobility, helping them think about debt reduction, reach personal goals and work toward a productive career. They will want to return to you because they feel like they received something valuable out of their relationship with the  university. Students who’ve had a great experience and feel like they received a return on investment want to help others have that same opportunity.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about prioritizing Workforce Education in the context of the broader institution?

AB: All higher education leaders need to be thinking about the workforce needs in their local market and how to marry those needs to their education curriculum. The higher education-to-employment ecosystem has ballooned. If higher ed institutions have a local presence, focused on supporting students and graduates in their current labor market alongside implementing the abovementioned whole-student approach, students will see more immediate and greater return on their investment, which is ultimately the goal of any higher education institution.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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