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Why Education Leaders Should Learn From Goodwill

The EvoLLLution | Why Education Leaders Should Learn From Goodwill
Goodwill became a leader in the competitive MOOC space, without anyone in the industry paying much attention. And the fact Goodwill’s success went unnoticed is a wake-up call for higher education.

In February 2019 I wrote an article about Goodwill’s online course platform,which more than 31 million people utilized in 2018. That means Goodwill—the famous non-profit—is one of the biggest Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers in the world, second only to Coursera and well ahead of both Udacity and edX.

Judging from responses I received, it appears almost no one in the higher education or EdTech space knew this until I reported it. With all the hype about MOOCs and all the press about higher education disruption, jobs, and the future of work, you’d think it would be impossible that this kind of story would go unnoticed. But it did.

There are reasons it went unnoticed and in those reasons is a great lesson that everyone in higher education and EdTech should heed.

Goodwill’s success has little to do with how much funding it receives. The resources invested in its online platform are a tiny fraction of that invested in Coursera, Udacity and edX. Its success doesn’t have anything to do with a breakthrough technology, getting media attention or forming partnerships with elite universities. Instead, they got the premise right. They tapped directly into the single greatest motivator for people pursuing education: a job.

Getting the premise right is everything. The premise that students come to higher education for the sake of learning and enlightenment and to become engaged citizens and lifelong learners (albeit all important goals) misses the mark on the prime motivation for the vast majority of education consumers. Yes, education consumers do value learning for learning’s sake. But what powers their drive for learning at the most fundamental level is improving their lot in life through meaningful work.

I had my eyes opened wide to this point during my time at Gallup. Gallup’s World Poll statistically samples 98% of the world’s population every year. The biggest insight from across the globe: what everyone wants most is a good job. They see a good job as their path to health, happiness, safety and having a family. This is the piercing insight about why people value higher education in America—and that is “to get a good job.” After all, how do you achieve health, happiness, safety and a family without having the basic means to support yourself and that family?

The job-driven motivation of education’s consumers is the point that many higher education administrators and faculty miss when they say things like, “Our job isn’t to help graduates get a job, it’s to prepare them for life.” It’s a common refrain I’ve heard time and again after speeches I’ve given on this topic. What they fail to understand is that for the vast majority of graduates, getting a good job isthe fundamental first step in the direction of having a great life. Although it’s treated as the ultimate outcome of an educational institution, receiving a diploma is not an education consumer’s ultimate outcome. Their ultimate outcome is a job—or a better job than the one they had before.

This is what Goodwill understands so clearly. And it’s driving their remarkable success. In fact, Goodwill is one of the largest job training and job placement organizations in the world. Once you understand this, it becomes no surprise that their online courses are focused on giving people basic and immediate employability skills. These are the most utilized courses in the world. And it’s not just about specific skill training. They work to support many critical aspects of soft-skill development as well as provide services including career coaching and rehabilitation for physical injuries. What Goodwill has figured out is how important it is to treat the individual learner/job-seeker holistically. They are holistic in how they educate—through specific skills training and broader soft-skill development. They don’t distinguish between the needs of a learner in an educational setting and the needs of that same person as a human being.

I’ve written many articles about the need to end the “either/or” conversation around a liberal arts approach vs. a vocational approach to education. The debate misses the point. It’s not either/or; it’s both. A great education ensures that a student is exposed to the classic underpinnings of the liberal arts (critical thinking, skilled communication, etc.) as well as real work experience, hands-on application of learning and job-specific skills. Indeed this kind of holistic approach is gaining momentum on many levels from “credegrees and co-ops” to Go Pro Early models that merge work and college.

There’s another—more worrisome—lesson to be learned too. Higher education is so caught up in the game of prestige and reputation that it’s increasingly making itself less relevant for a growing number of education consumers. Prestige and reputation traditionally have been achieved through being more expensive, going “up market” with more masters and doctoral level degree offerings, playing the ranking’s games of increased selectivity by turning more students away, and of course building more buildings and providing ever fancier amenities to students. In fact, jobs training is something that too many higher education institutions look down upon.

All this is counter-productive to what the core education consumers in the U.S. and around the globe want most. Sure, there’s still a market for traditional-age students and families willing to pay full price for an on-campus residential experience. But that market is shrinking in the U.S. and it pales in comparison to the market of current and prospective students who want work relevance and affordability from their education. Even among the coming generation of traditional students, there’s an increased appetite for work-relevant education, including among highly-educated and wealthy families.

Higher education institutions that ignore this may still climb up the rankings through their prestige and reputation approach. But they will slide in their relevance to a growing number of would-be applicants, undercutting their own goals of attracting diverse students.

Let’s hope the reasons why the industry overlooked Goodwill’s success become an important lesson for education leaders at all types of institutions.

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