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While the problems with education beyond high school are deep and many, three towering issues loom over the rest. Combined, they make continuing our current model untenable for the future.

First among the problems is the scale of student debt. U.S. student loan debt totaled $1.6 trillion as of March 31, 2021. This figure dwarfs all other forms of debt short of mortgages in this country. Anecdotally, senior citizens continue to carry student debt into their retirement years. For the most part, the debt is for baccalaureate degrees. Yet, in a recent study, investment in 40 percent of master degrees fails to produce a positive return.

Next among the problems is the long-standing, continuing problem of noncompletion. In almost any other industry with the exception of gambling, clients would not stand for an entity taking tens of thousands of their dollars with no return. Michael J. Petrilli writes in Education Next, “the six-year completion rate for any degree or certificate is currently 62.2 percent. That means that 37.8 percent of college students drop out with no credential to their name.” Taking a long view, it is astounding that consumers of education put up with this. How can we defend the fact that one-third of those who enroll leave with no credential?

Third among the problems is that a majority of the workforce does not feel fully prepared for their jobs in this Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is true among employers and employees alike. IBL News reports on a recent large-scale survey by Salesforce: “In the research, a total of 76% of global workers say that they feel unequipped and unprepared to operate in a digital-first world. However, only 28% of them are actively seeking skills training.”

There are many more problems in our field, but these three loom large over postsecondary education and society at large. These shortcomings have driven some of the larger employers in the country to drop their prior requirements that job applicants have a college degree. It has seemed impossible to solve these issues—they are too large, too pervasive, too daunting—that is, until now. Google has taken on the challenge—not to solve all problems for all people, but rather to build an example of how we can go about addressing these problems in a meaningful way.

Launched last year, the Google Career Certificate program offers the project management certificate, data analytics professional certificate, UX design professional certificate, IT support professional certificate, and IT automation professional certificate. All are for beginners in the field, and all are offered through Coursera and other institutions for as little as $39 a month after a free trial.

The American Council on Education recommends that 12 college credit hours be offered for selected certificates. “We are excited about this expansion of our Grow with Google Certificates program and the opportunity to partner with academic institutions across the US, including community colleges, which are critical to workforce development and economic mobility,” said Ruth Porat, Alphabet and Google CFO. “We believe that to have sustainable economic growth, we must have inclusive growth, and we are committed to continuing to help people develop the digital skills they need to participate in this economy.”

Google has offered the certificate programs free to community colleges, and a number of universities have incorporated the programs into their offerings. Notably, the University of London bachelor of science in computer science and the University of North Texas bachelor of applied arts and sciences degrees on Coursera as well as Northeastern University are among the institutions accepting college credit from entry-level Google certificates.

These are an advancement in that they are high-quality, cogent offerings by a leader in the field. However, other certificates and certifications have been offered by leaders such as Microsoft and Cisco for years. The real game changer, to my mind, is Google’s partner program with employers. Starting with nearly 150 employers, many among Fortune 500 companies, the program creates a pipeline for those who complete certificates to be put at the head of the line for consideration for hiring. This connection goes far beyond the traditional college placement office in creating a two-way relationship with a vast array of employers highlighting the certificate holders.

The Google Career Certificate program goes a long way in addressing the top three problems in postsecondary education. It is affordable—with a $39-per-month tuition program for a certificate that should take six months or so to complete—and is one program that is not likely to add substantially to student debt. Recently, Google announced a $100 million Google Certificates Career Fund that “will allow Social Finance, a nonprofit partnering with Google on this endeavor, to fund the earning of Google Career Certificates for 20,000 people.”

Given the brevity of the program, the free trial period and built-in supports for students, the Google Certificate programs would seem to be less likely to lead to a dropout rate approaching the nearly 38 percent of students who drop out of college without anything to show for their efforts. And, perhaps most directly, the Google Certificates programs address the needs for employees to be prepared to thrive in the emerging digital-first world.

Writing in Inc., Jeff Steen suggests that higher education should take notice. “While some sources argue these are best used to amplify an undergraduate degree—not replace it—the low cost to entry and Google’s connection to more than 140 companies make it easy to get your foot in the tech door … Whatever the course of higher education, your efforts to upskill talent can only empower, uplift, and support those who want to advance their careers—without forcing them to pile on debt.”

Is your institution affiliated with the Google Career Certificate program? Who at your institution is considering the impact of this high-quality, low-cost initiative with an impressive placement program on your own IT academic offerings? Is anyone considering how this model may be replicated in other fields?

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