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How does the learning and employment ecosystem (hereafter called the Ecosystem) work? What are its problems? How can we address the Ecosystem problems related to the higher education system and make it more efficient and effective?

In the post-war boom era of 1950, less than 15 percent of the U.S. population completed four years of college to earn a credential. In that period, a degree, by itself, distinguished the learner/earner from more than three-quarters of U.S. workers and so a degree carried inherent value. Today, about 38 percent of the population in the U.S. have completed four years of college. The job market followed this trend: Per the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in 1973, 28 percent of jobs required post-secondary education, but in 2018, 63 percent of jobs offered required some post-secondary work. Ironically, 33 percent or more of all college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. At the same time, higher education is going through a period of increased scrutiny and accountability regarding the return on investment (ROI) of their credentials and how well they serve recipients.

In addition, the cost of a college degree has risen dramatically over the last 20 years. “Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169 percent.”

There appears to be a disconnect. The workforce is demanding more post-secondary attainment and skills more directly related to employer needs, yet many learners who have earned the expensive credential cannot find employment or a position commensurate with their degree. This has placed public scrutiny on the value and return on post-secondary investment.

In 2018, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen predicted that 50% of colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade. The fear is that as they are currently funded and managed, colleges may increasingly be unable to cover their costs through revenue. There is increasing competition from accredited, nontraditional colleges such as Western Governors University (in business since 1997, with over 120,000 current students) and Southern New Hampshire University (a formerly traditional college that became a nontraditional university in 2001, with currently over 130,000 online students), from alternative education entities such as boot-camps like General Assembly, from online course providers such as Coursera and Udemy and from corporate training organizations.

It seems there may be alignment issues between providers of learning and fulfillment in the employment economy that go beyond the last few years of COVID.

So, to restate this issue, how does the learning and employment ecosystem work? What are its problems? How can we address the Ecosystem problems related to the higher education system and make it more efficient and effective for the learner?

What is the Learning and Employment Ecosystem

The learning and employment ecosystem is the set of stakeholders, organizations, policies and practices (including laws), tools and data that collectively interact to enable learning, learning attestations (credentials), hiring and the pursuit of careers.

Overview of the Ecosystem

The following is a very high level of the Ecosystem and its key stakeholders:

Figure 1

The arrows in this diagram represent the primary engagements between the key stakeholders.

Learners/earners clearly engage with education, training and certification providers and, separately, with employers and with talent/professional networks (e.g., Indeed or LinkedIn). Employers also use those networks to search for potential hires. Though there are opportunities and occasions where education providers may engage with employers or talent networks, those tend to occur on an individual basis and not as a standard Ecosystem function.

The Ecosystem actually includes many stakeholders and many, more complex relationships.

Figure 2

The great variety of stakeholders (depicted above) have various relationships with each other. For example, credentialing organizations such as state nursing boards, define standards that graduating nurses must meet and provide testing and related management of their certifications, which are, in turn, used as evidence of credentials for hiring by employers.

What Can Institutions of Higher Education Do to Support the Ecosystem?

Both the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and International Business Machines (IBM) are active in pursuing the development of an ecosystem that enables learners to communicate, with trust and confidence, their skills, competencies and learning to support their next career opportunities. The opportunities might present themselves academically via pursuit of a credential from another institution or in the labor market. In either case, the ability to transmit trusted, verifiable credentials to reviewers with enough information embedded for recipients to discern how these skills translate into their specific contexts is, we believe, crucial for both sectors, and for the learner, as we move into a more volatile future. We felt the combined subject matter knowledge of the two organizations might highlight the need for the learning and employment ecosystem, the challenges to adoption, and some recommendations for how to proceed.

Below are five ways institutions of higher education can better support the skills-based ecosystem to the benefit of all key stakeholders. Read the full set of recommendations here.

Some recommended approaches are:

  1. Identify programs/departments that serve in-demand jobs and work with instructors, administrative support and/or consultants to generate learning outcome/skills-based descriptions for their courses. These do not necessarily require the instructor to rewrite course descriptions but allow the institution to correlate or enhance those descriptions with the skills/competency information.
  2. Identify courses and/or experiential learning activities that lead to student attainment of a specific award (e.g., certificates) including the expressions of the skills and competencies the student demonstrated to earn the award. Examples include undergraduate research, internships, supervised community support programs and others.
  3. Capture the skills/competency information for the courses within the course management system (whether it is part of the SIS or in another system). This may be done by either using existing system data fields or creating an associated table. If a table is created, it should use (or can be converted to) the Open Badge (OB) or the Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) standard data structure. Committing to these standards means the institution can interoperate with others who issue and receive digital credentials. This will directly benefit the learner and provide for more cost-effective record processing for the institution.
  4. Provide a means to generate an enhanced student report or transcript, preferably following the OB or CLR standard, that captures both the traditional student transcript content and the underlying achieved skills/competency information in a machine-readable form. If the information was already captured in this form (see #3) then it becomes extremely easy to report it out. In either case, using these standards can make that relatively easy and can become an automated process for any skills/competencies aligned courses.
  5. Create a policy (or policies), and the practices supporting it, to guide the institution toward its digital credential vision. In much the same way that policies define currently issued credentials, digital credentials or skills-based policies should specify what is issued and distinguish it from traditional ones. This exercise need not be onerous. Rather, it should be similar to traditional policies and assist all in understanding the credentials being asserted.

This is a minimal effort that can be scoped as narrowly as a few courses in a single discipline or more broadly, depending on the institution’s resources.

In following these steps, first in a small way (e.g., perhaps single program or department and perhaps only undergraduate courses in the major), the institution now has tools to:

  1. Help market the value of the program to potential and current students
  2. Help students with learning and career pathway counseling (by reference to needed job skills)
  3. Work with employers to perform early placement (internships) and promote the institution brand
  4. Collaborate with employers to align the descriptions with the industry skills needed
  5. Demonstrate positive outcomes in terms of retention and hiring, again promoting the brand

Then the institution can expand to include more courses and programs, and work more closely with industry, government and others to achieve a better alignment of skills and competencies for mutual gain.

At some point, the institution will likely want to address related technologies and services with regard to skills and competencies. These may include:

  • The institution issuing trusted “badges” or microcredentials for achievements, using the Open Badges standard.
  • The ability to award “stackable” achievements as “badges” or microcredentials for skill attainment within components of a course and groups of courses, such that someone who completes a course not only gets course credit but multiple microcredentials for well-defined skills achievements, and those who do not finish a course may still achieve partial credit for the attainment of some of the defined competencies in the course.
  • The promotion and governance of co-curricular activities to the status of credentialed skills/competency achievements by the institution.
  • The use of an institution or institution affiliated “wallet” (a digital wallet—an app or online service used to store electronic documents) for students and alumni to maintain their achievements in a form that is digitally readable in a manner that the wallet owner has control over who has access to their information.
  • The ability to aggregate credentials and related achievements from multiple sources (other education institutions, certification entities, employers) such that it represents the “whole” learner/earner (this is often referenced as a Learner and Employment Record (LER)). This in turn can be a means for the institution to engage (with the wallet holder’s permission) in meaningful additional learning and alumni opportunities.

Building on the skills/competencies aligned curriculum, the use of technologies to support the institution and learner provides the institution with greater influence with all other stakeholders in the Ecosystem and creates viable additional revenue opportunities.

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