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4 ways colleges can future-proof themselves

While education is not a commodity, a move to future-proof colleges will make institutional processes simpler, more intuitive and accessible.
By Todd Zipper, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Wiley University Services and Talent Development
August 9th, 2022

While education is not a commodity to be bought or sold, institutional processes should be simpler, more intuitive and accessible

As institutions of higher education prepare for the upcoming fall semester, they continue to face strong headwinds. From the declining number of high school graduates enrolling in college to inflationary constraints, the future of postsecondary education is more uncertain than ever—especially amid fears of a recession.

At the same time, employers continue to face skills and talent shortages in a tight labor market.

Amid this extraordinary uncertainty, however, is an opportunity for institutions to support students, foster lifelong learning and meet the needs of employers, while maintaining a sustainable value proposition.

Here are four ways for institutions to “future-proof” themselves through career-connected education:

1. Become more market-driven

Career-connected education means adopting a ‘right to left’ education model, where institutions start with the needs of the labor market and work backward to build programs that meet those needs. For example, the University of West Alabama launched 19 new market-driven academic programs in five years to address specific gaps in areas such as business, mental health, and rural education based on extensive market research.

There are additional ways for institutions to become more market-driven, including:

  • Embedding career services and micro-internships directly into courses
  • Establishing program advisory boards with industry professionals to ensure students are learning the skills they’ll need to secure employment
  • Evaluating work experience for transferable credit
  • Ensuring program tuition aligns with graduate salaries—addressing a root cause of the student debt crisis

2. Expand academic pathways beyond the four-year degree

The four-year degree is no longer the only relevant credential for employment. In a recent survey, 73% of high schoolers said a direct pathway to a career is essential in postsecondary education, yet the likelihood of them attending a four-year institution dropped from 71% to 51% since February 2020. Students are increasingly seeking to leverage higher education to earn promotions, change careers and acquire new skills.

As a result, institutions must expand beyond the traditional four-year degree model by modularizing career-connected programs—from building faster degree and certificate programs, to launching stackable and incremental micro-credentials with certifications that unlock an immediate value in the workplace.

Modularizing programs can also help to lower cost barriers and provide more flexibility and impact. For example, Southern New Hampshire University redesigned its online MBA to combine practical, real-world course materials with industry credentials. Students can finish the program in less time and for less money and benefit from industry-endorsed certificates and badges from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) embedded directly into the program.

3. Work with employers on learning and development opportunities  

Institutions should consider both students and employers as their consumers. This approach requires a mindset shift for institutions to see themselves not only as stimulators of learning, but also producers of talent. Many industries are experiencing skills gaps and talent shortages as they look to fill high-demand roles that require specific skillsets. Institutions are well-positioned to bridge that gap by partnering with local and regional employers on workforce development opportunities. This approach complements an institution’s market-driven focus through modularized programs.

As the Great Resignation has taught us, employees are now looking for the ‘best places to learn’ in addition to the ‘best places to earn.’ Employers must prioritize learning and development to recruit and retain top talent. Institutions of higher education can play a unique role in fostering and enabling that lifelong learning.

4. Adopt a 21st century student journey approach

Over the last two decades, technology has fundamentally changed consumer habits. Student expectations for the college experience are no exception. Institutions must continually build modern processes around today’s student journey to create more seamless experiences that meet their needs—from a prospective student’s admissions application to a graduating student’s transcript request. Georgia State University has pioneered the use of AI-powered chatbots, improving retention and graduation outcomes particularly for first-generation and underrepresented students.

While education is not a commodity to be bought or sold, institutional processes should be simpler, more intuitive and accessible, leveraging technology to streamline workflows with a few clicks of a mouse or taps of a finger. That’s the world students will join once they begin their careers. The institutions that prioritize the enablement of today’s student journey will prove more successful in the future of learning.

Looking ahead

The pandemic accelerated many of the trends we’re seeing in higher education today. Institutions must continually adapt to these changing circumstances by taking an ecosystem approach to career-connected education–one that serves students, institutions and employers—especially in times of economic uncertainty. Implementing meaningful change won’t happen overnight, but when done successfully, institutions will enroll and graduate more students while providing a stronger return on investment for all stakeholders.

About the Author:

Todd Zipper is Wiley’s executive vice president and general manager of University Services and Talent Development, a global provider of technology-enabled education solutions to meet the evolving needs of universities, corporations, and ultimately, learners. Wiley University Services partners with over 70 nonprofit institutions across the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

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