Dear Colleges, Please Do Not Build More Degree Programs in this Time of Crisis

Apr 21, 2020

Willing or not, thousands of institutions of higher education have been thrust into creating some version of online education for their learners during this pandemic. And with millions of Americans suddenly jobless, early research suggests that as they have in past recessions, people will turn to higher education — likely online.

But the last thing we need right now is more online degree programs or credentials.

By some estimates, roughly 738,000 unique credentials flood the education and labor markets already. You’d think all these options would offer learners a selection of precise career pathways. Instead, the sheer number of programs creates more hiring friction between learners and employers. Employers already are struggling to differentiate between the vast array of signals they see on resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

The solution is not another type of degree or a “microcredential.” The millions who have lost and are losing their jobs will be focused on making ends meet. They are seeking new models that allow them to quickly acquire and demonstrate the skills employers want.

The world needs targeted education.

Newly laid-off workers need ways to prove what they know, discover the hidden skills and capabilities they’ve honed over years of work experience and transfer those into new domains and perhaps an entirely new industry. They may still have skills they need to learn. But they don’t have the time or resources to fill those gaps with full-time, two- or four-year degree programs.

This was true even before the pandemic radically reshaped daily life. In our hour-long interviews with 100-plus adult learners conducted over the past year, interviewees talked frequently about the “hustle” to survive and their inability to juggle education with everything else that seems to work against them.

In this unstable moment, millions of people will be seeking cost-effective, briefer and more targeted pathways that launch them rapidly into a job. They will not need a bundled, comprehensive program that could take years to complete — and may not effectively signal to employers what they can do. They are looking to survive.

The world needs modularized education.

Back in 2014, Clayton Christensen and I described the disruptive potential of fusing online technologies with competency-based education to get to more modularized education. Modularity breaks up learning into units that can be studied as stand-alone modules—and in whatever sequence the learner needs.

Think discrete Lego pieces: Competencies have a unique architecture because they are not tethered to specific courses but composed of a series of learning objectives or can-do statements. For instance, a learner might aim to be able to create a research-based argument, or use appropriate mathematical formulas to inform financial decisions or speak effectively in order to persuade or motivate.

By breaking free of the constraints of the “course” as the educational unit, an online competency-based education provider can combine and stack learning modules together in different ways for various students. Using the same pieces, a Lego bridge becomes a Lego house.

But to date, even the most forward-thinking online providers have yet to take full advantage of what competencies have to offer through modularization. Instead, most of the innovation has been channeled into degree programs or microcredentials beyond a bachelor’s degree.

Part of the challenge is that employers and policymakers don’t have actionable data to drive the creation of precision education and to allocate workforce dollars more effectively. The lack of a common language among key players in the ecosystem is a barrier to competency-based education.

Skills can be that language. In our research, we’ve uncovered how skill shapes can provide a fine-grained view of labor demand, as well as a better understanding of the career trajectories of millions of people in the labor market. Knowledge of skill shapes can help learners and employers fill skills gaps more quickly—because we can see the exact skills someone must acquire to meet the needs of a specific role.

So when we see an office administrator in New York City trying to move into financial analysis, we know she needs to build skills like business process improvement, business continuity, risk analysis and Scrum to navigate her next job transition. Likewise, we know that before a machinist in Wichita, Kansas, can move into an oversight capacity in his work, he needs to develop his missing skills in, say, lean manufacturing, corrective and preventative actions, and continuous quality improvement.

Skill shapes offer better visibility into the kinds of pathways that enable workers to acquire the skills they need in order to advance in their work lives. But we need learning providers to offer precision education and design and refine program offerings, curricula and credentials that are tightly coupled with actual labor market demand. We need targeted, modularized and precision education pathways.

The world needs seamless learning pathways for adult learners.

Higher education and employers play a critical role. This targeted education must be seamless—not something to add on top of learners’ existing responsibilities and constraints. From our research, adult learners consistently point to something bigger that prohibits them from putting their mental energies toward anything other than survival. As one participant in our survey said: “In life, of course, everybody always has something going on. You're either going through something, about to go through something, or just came out of something.”

We cannot lay the burden of reskilling on the individual. Learners need more on-the-job training, seamlessly integrated with work, to acquire the right skills for emerging roles. Earning and learning have to be simultaneous—one and the same, fast and now.

In this time of great upheaval, every region has the opportunity to rebuild its local economies by aligning training dollars to more precise learning pathways that match local talent to the skill shape of the region. Cultivating and redeploying talent as rapidly as possible should be the primary economic development strategy.

We already have more than enough degree programs. Let’s work with what we have and distill learning into the most critical and flexible modules to redeploy talent as rapidly as possible.


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