By Angela (Ceresnie) Prince
When most people hear “Higher Education,” their minds go to universities, ivy-covered buildings, and large lecture halls. Even though we know higher education simply means education after high school, the connotation has often become limited to 4-year universities and a singular version of higher learning. That is changing rapidly and students and policymakers alike are rightly increasingly focusing on the value proposition of various education options.
In 2020, the pandemic accelerated the move to online learning, and 33% of post-secondary school administrators indicate they will continue to offer both remote and online course options even after their campuses have reopened and normal operations resumed. This increasing move to online learning raises questions regarding higher education costs as more than 93% of U.S. college students say tuition should be lowered if classes are online. The focus on cost is the natural result of the student debt crisis, and necessarily should be part of the value equation students consider when choosing education programs.
The other variable in the value equation is graduate outcomes and a clear understanding of the return on investment. Congress has recently advocated several substantial policy changes to increase transparency regarding higher education value, including by quantifying outcomes in order to compare to costs.
As policymakers consider ways to help students make more informed decisions and gain real-world skills, it would be helpful to look at a segment of higher education that has already been focusing on helping students understand whether the costs of a program are worth the expected outcomes: career education.
Career education doesn’t just consist of trade schools anymore — although those are an important part of this segment. A number of training programs have emerged over the past 10 years to support accelerated pathways into careers, from medical assisting to web development and heavy construction and trucking to data science. And these are fields currently facing significant labor shortages.
Skills and training programs offer more affordable pathways into lucrative careers with clearer outcomes; additionally these careers are not necessarily gated by 4-year degrees. Through accelerated career training people also have the opportunity to explore careers before committing 4 years (and $100K+) to a career path. For example, someone might pursue a medical assistant training program before making a more sizable investment in nursing school.
These programs are also the perfect pathway for career-switchers and upskillers. 34% of millennials plan to quit their jobs after the pandemic is over. According to Forbes, 80% of these workers are concerned about their career growth. Further, Strada reported that 35% of respondents who lost hours or employment during the beginning of the pandemic identified needing more skills in their current field to get a similar job with similar pay. What is more, 68% of adults looking to pursue higher education now prefer non-degree programs.
Even with this demand, increasing adoption of these clearly valuable programs is challenging in a society where 4-year degrees have been so culturally ingrained as the (only) path to success. So how can we make progress?
Through our research into career education, we know that the benefits of training programs can be significant, and in many cases as strong as or stronger than more traditional education paths. The shift toward these career-focused training models can be accelerated if traditional institutions begin offering them.
Higher education institutions with more name recognition and reputational weight are seen as more trusted. These traditional institutions have served their communities over the past decades, and have earned the trust of learners. All of that well-earned reputation and brand equity doesn’t necessarily need to be “disrupted” through the shift toward career education, but rather can leverage partnerships with accelerated programs to adapt to changing learner needs more quickly and efficiently.
Accordingly, many providers of accelerated career training programs have started to partner with universities to deliver their training. These partnerships allow innovative programs, from technology training to healthcare training, to be offered by trusted institutions. Learners get certificates and skills with the name of the well-known institution, as well as the career-focused benefit—and the more student-friendly price—of an accelerated program. And, most importantly, the value equation is clear: a student can readily understand the cost of the program and compare it to the expected return on investment.