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What the Great Resignation Means for Higher Ed

A building and a sign on a university campus

Talk of the “great resignation” is often focused on skyrocketing rates of people leaving the workforce within the last few months. But the underlying dynamic—of people reconsidering and changing employment—is in fact the foundation for post-secondary education. The path of education to employment has often focused on degree attainment, but what the “great resignation” brings today is a call to urgently and rapidly transform education to better respond to the needs of workers for short-duration, easily extendable, and employment-relevant skills.

I was privileged to discuss changing demand and opportunities for non-degree credentials with a group of Salesforce higher education customers last month at a new event called Higher Ed Dreamin’. It offered an opportunity to collaborate, network, and learn from experienced education technologists working within and serving higher education. I spoke about what the great resignation means for higher education and how we can move forward.

Fewer degrees, greater inequities

Increasingly, the appeal of non-degree credentials is not just for mid-career transitions. Last month, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) shared results from recent enrollment reports: “The rates at which the class of 2020 immediately enrolled in college have fallen by unprecedented levels, four to 10 percentage point drops depending on high school categories, with disproportionately large drops among high-poverty or low-income high schools.”

Economic pressure to quickly transition from education to improved employment prospects may very well be amplifying an attitudinal shift that is already well underway. Many young people coming out of high school don’t see themselves earning a four-year degree. A recent ECMC/Vice Media report revealed that teens were 23 percent less likely to pursue a four-year degree in September 2021 than they were in May 2020. In contrast, more than half of the teenagers polled were still open to something other than a four-year degree and believed they can achieve professional success with education attained in three years or less.

While a college degree does not guarantee gainful employment upon graduation, it still remains one of the few paths that is reliably correlated with lasting increases in income and related benefits. And as the NSC research notes, the decreased enrollment in college directly from high school is greater among those who already have greater need for improved economic prospects. Given these trends, higher education institutions whose mission includes serving diverse populations may find a growing mandate to increase the accessibility, affordability, quality, and relevance of their academic programs by extending to non-degree options.

More credentials wanted — often by alumni

Options for shorter, employment-relevant education offerings are in broad demand, from first-time learners to mid-career professionals. Working adults have a strong history of a continual learning approach to address skills gaps and career changes. In 2016, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that more than one in four working adults held a non-degree credential, and most of them prepared with classes from an educational institution. And as of last November, a survey from BestColleges found a majority of working adults planned to learn new skills within the next year.

Skills gaps also remain a major issue for employers, with 9 of 10 executives worrying about them even before the pandemic. Consequently, 69% of organizations increased their skill-building over the past two years. Demand is growing rapidly in response to efforts to align the expense and time in post-secondary education to employment outcomes. As of the beginning of this year, there were almost a million credentials registered in the U.S. through Credential Engine, the bulk of them from non-academic providers in categories like licenses, certifications (including those from Salesforce!), apprenticeships, and badges.

That’s why right now, there is an opportunity, and perhaps an obligation, for traditional higher education to offer trusted options for pathways between education and employment. The demand for non-degree credentials is highest among people who already have earned a degree. They want to keep learning, and they want to do it with institutions they know and trust.

Technology can enable necessary change

When I live-polled attendees at Higher Ed Dreamin’ about the barriers that exist to expanding non-degree offerings within their institutions, the most common response I got was “culture.” Some called it “fear of change,” or “breaking from the norm,” or “tradition,” but what it comes down to is mindset.

Fortunately, some change is already occurring. Many institutions at Higher Ed Dreamin’ said they are offering non-degree certificate programs. Quite a few plan to offer stackable micro-credentials in the future. And most were increasing opportunities for students who complete non-degree coursework to leverage it toward a degree.

But there’s plenty of room left to increase accessibility and options for students of all ages and stages. The thought leaders, technologists, and change agents I spoke with last month and those of you reading this blog all have the ability to work toward student success that’s centered on the success of all students. We must harness the power of digital transformation in education to achieve the necessary change. I invite all of you to turn your talent and passion toward this moment, this opportunity, to put technology to work increasing access and options for all.

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