From skyrocketing unemployment to incoming college students opting for gap years, millions of Americans’ lives have been upended by COVID-19. With the current labor market demanding a more agile solution to supply talent for fast-growing jobs, the importance of affordable and accessible educational opportunities that lead to meaningful economic opportunity has never been more prevalent.
This shake-up has forced students to reassess their long-held ideas about higher education, and it has shed light on online, short-term credentials and industry-driven certificates as alternative micro-pathways. As this massive surge in demand for micro-pathways continues, many employers have been offering their own training and certification programs at a fraction of the cost of a college degree. This begs the question: are we entering into a renewed reality where universities and employers compete for learners? At the end of the day, which of them can actually solve the skills gap?
Last month, a group of thought leaders who are hungry for solutions gathered on a panel at the virtual ASU+GSV Summit to answer this question. These panelists included Ryan O’Mahoney, managing director of short courses at 2U, Inc.; John Farrar, industry leader for higher education at Google; Andrew Flagel, vice president of Association of American Colleges and Universities; and Rufus Glasper, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Read on to hear all of their thoughts on whether it will be universities, employers, or tech giants that will close the skills gap and meet the critical needs of society amid a pandemic-era economy and beyond.
The conversation began with Rufus detailing why community colleges have found it difficult to move forward and deliver what employers need now. He explained the fear factor that many community colleges have about operating too quickly out of their usual structure or moving forward, without official accreditation. But he also emphasized a second fear factor colleges are facing: the fear that if they don’t move fast enough, other providers will ultimately take their market share. Though community colleges struggle to move at the speed of the industry, Rufus said it’s time to push past these fear factors and prioritize listening to employer demands. By expanding the focus of their business, community colleges can better embrace opportunities to offer microcredentials as fast-track programs while still maintaining the usual integrity of their guided pathway approach.
Andrew built on Rufus’ point that in order to be more effective, colleges and universities will have to expand their markets and think more about nontraditional students and what success can look like for them—which means offering educational pathways at the microcredential level that can help students become more promotable and adaptable. To do so, Andrew emphasized that universities and employers need to be far more collaborative. He said that if universities become more sophisticated, proactive, and innovative in their approach to working with employers, they may be willing to step out of their comfort zones and take more risks to provide much more valuable programs or pathways. Through effective collaboration with employers, universities can ensure they’re not only preparing students to flourish in the jobs of today, but also adapt to the jobs of tomorrow.
John agreed and added that collaboration may be difficult because both higher education institutions and employers are uncomfortable right now. But by embracing this discomfort and time of change, he feels both sides will be much more willing to innovate. John provided insight into the recent certifications Google has announced as well. He said that over the past six months, Google has found that students are laser-focused on the ROI of their education, meaning they want a much more linear line of sight in terms of their investment in their journeys to employment. John said that to meet the students where they are now, universities and employers need to coexist in an education ecosystem and remain committed to understanding how industry needs and talent pipelines are evolving. By building this bridge and traveling on it frequently, universities and employers can collectively work together to create relevant pathways to jobs to solve the skills gap.
Ryan wrapped up the conversation by concluding that the main theme among all of the panelists’ points is that universities and employers must collaborate, not compete. He also provided insight into the role that tech companies, such as 2U, play in supporting universities in identifying where the gaps are in their curricula and helping them accelerate the development of courses with a focus on the most in-demand skills. He said we’re going to continue to see a growth in microlearning experiences offered by large tech companies and by higher education institutions—but what we’re not going to see is a displacement of universities by employers. Similarly to how it “takes a village to raise a child,” Ryan said it takes a village to solve the skills gap, too.
So...what’s the final answer to our question?
According to these thought leaders, the sheer size and need for reskilling and upskilling globally will require all parties—universities, employers, and tech giants—to play a critical role in closing the skills gap.
If you’re interested to hear this entire ASU+GSV panel, you can register for free and watch it here.
Learn more about us.
At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.