Skills-Based Learning and the Changing Economy

Oct 28, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift in what students think of higher education. This is the first in a series of three posts for the Association of Governing Boards looking ahead to these possibly seismic shifts and how to prepare your institution for the student of the future.

Skills-Based Learning and the Changing Economy

The rising burden of student loans and the growing concern about the applicability of a degree to future jobs is leading many students and parents to reconsider college. The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated this anxiety; one study found that “30 percent of college grads will change career paths due to COVID-19.” Students are not interested in going into debt for a four-year degree that may not land them a job. These concerns could create a significant shift in the future of higher ed. How will this impact your institution?

The Uncertain Economy and Changing Job Requirements

Students want to be sure they will find good-paying jobs when they graduate, so they are looking for what they see as more practical degree programs—sometimes bypassing the traditional college experience entirely and exploring microlearning certifications instead of taking courses while working. The employment market is expected to be driven by growth in jobs involving data, software development, and cybersecurity, as well as other jobs requiring hands-on digital skills [PDF download]. The economy is shifting, so the needs of employers are shifting. People who have invested decades in one career find themselves needing to upskill to find a new job. Companies need employees who can pick up new skills and adapt to new roles as business needs change.

As the need for these hands-on skills rises, companies are turning to an apprentice model and investing in last-mile trainings. However, high schools are not necessarily preparing graduates for the workforce; higher education is still needed and invaluable. Employers are increasingly focusing on competency-based education to bridge that gap, and students are weighing their options. Will students seek out courses and majors that appear more practical, turning away from classic majors such as English and astronomy?

Supporting and Retaining These Students

As students switch majors or put off college indefinitely during the pandemic, changes are already being felt as enrollment declines. Colleges and universities need to change to keep up with workforce changes. What are some ways that you can help students more clearly draw connections between the work that they do in the classroom and the skills they will need in the workforce? How can your institution make the career paths and applicability of specific degrees clearer to students?

  • Provide pathways and alternative uses of degrees/skills.
    Investing in your career center and having an extensive database of alums who can speak to how their major has helped them be successful can go a long way toward helping students see the relevance and opportunity in the subject area they love. This is an opportunity to emphasize the importance of transferable skills and soft skills in employability.
  • Support entrepreneurship and design-your-own majors.
    Several schools, such as University of Washington and Evergreen State College, provide students with the option of putting together their own major. It takes rigorous self-discipline, a key skill in the workplace, to design and implement individualized studies at this level.
  • Incorporate more competency-based education into your offerings.
    CBE allows students to learn at their own pace and according to their needs. For students wary of taking on large debt, this personalized learning approach can be a better investment.
  • Increase virtual internship programs, particularly those that appeal to minority or low-income students.
    Employers expect graduates to have internships under their belt already, but for people who don’t have the right connections or who can’t afford to do unpaid work, internships can be prohibitive. Making internships easily accessible (especially by making them virtual, which offers flexible scheduling and the ability to work for a company not convenient to your school) or offering course credit for internships can make a large difference in how prospective students view your institution.
  • Seek out partnerships with companies and the government.
    By partnering directly with employers, your institution can get a better sense of the types of skills students need to build for the job they want.
  • Rethink assessments and grades.
    Skills-based learning could change how we approach assessments and traditional grading. Are multiple-choice tests the best way of checking knowledge? Is there a better system than A/B/C for grading? What are some more wholistic assignments that are more closely aligned with students’ personal and professional goals? New approaches could improve learner engagement and impact what students get out of their college experience.

Questions for the Future

Higher ed will face significant changes in the near future. What will students be looking for post-COVID? What can you do to continue to attract students and support your faculty? Next month, we’ll take a closer look at the future of online courses, as well as what tools and support are needed for this transition.

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