Higher Ed Shake Up

Changes to how we educate the workforce are coming. What those changes bring remains to be seen.

by Frank Kalman

T

o most people, Virginia Foxx is a relatively unknown United States Republican congresswoman from North Carolina. But to some in the higher education industry, Foxx is public enemy No. 1.

That’s because, as chairwomen of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, she is spearheading a revamp of the sprawling, 542-page Higher Education Act of 1965, a process that appears likely to shake up higher education in ways that will make many school administrators uncomfortable.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal in December, the bill, titled the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform Act, or PROSPER, aims to overhaul the country’s student-loan programs, mandate more transparency on graduates’ earnings and discard much of the current regulatory framework on for-profit schools. As of publication, the bill was still working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives; an initial version in the Senate isn’t expected until early 2018.

Above all, the bill aims to alter the structure of higher education by focusing on student outcomes. It does this through a provision that would require colleges and universities to publish graduates’ salaries five and 10 years down the road. What’s more, it will require schools to break out data down to the academic-program level rather than for the entire school.

There are many drivers behind this legislative effort. Despite record-low unemployment and a healthy U.S. economy, many have become disillusioned with the idea that attending a four-year college is the best path to a prosperous career. According to the U.S. Labor Department, a skills gap left more than 6 million jobs unfilled at the end of 2017 — a statistic many cite when arguing that traditional colleges aren’t doing an adequate job of preparing students for the workforce.

This argument becomes weightier when paired with the fact that, thanks to the exponential rise in the cost of higher education, roughly 44 million Americans are drowning in a combined $1.45 trillion of student loan debt, according to the most recent government data. Many of these borrowers are underemployed or in jobs that don’t align with their college degree, and with an average monthly student-loan payment of about $350, they’re finding it difficult to keep their heads above water.

But as our cover story shows, efforts to better prepare workers for the modern economy go far beyond a higher education overhaul — and they require just as much participation among companies and individuals as they do schools.

Certainly, higher education will need to adapt, especially in ways that will help accommodate nontraditional students, or those who may be older, working part time and raising a family while in school. Time will tell if legislative efforts will be the right means of pushing them along.

Meantime, other forces are coming along, propelling a change in how students learn the skills needed for the modern workforce.

For starters, an abundance of private online learning platforms are entering the market, with the hope of making learning more affordable, accessible and efficient. In some instances, colleges themselves are developing their own online platforms or partnering with the private sector to innovate in this area.

Secondly, companies themselves are taking a more hands-on approach with workforce development. Many are finding that investing in the continuing education of their employees isn’t just the right thing to do, but it helps retain high-performers, thus solidifying the effort’s return on investment. Some are going as far as partnering with universities and online learning providers to ensure their workers have the most relevant, up-to-date skills.

Finally, individuals are learning that, in today’s economy, they need to bear a greater share of responsibility for their development. Thankfully, today’s technological innovations are making that burden easier to take on.

How these forces eventually come together to address the larger challenges of educating the workforce remain to be seen. What’s certain is that whatever emerges as the new standard will be far different than anything we’ve seen before.