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Creative Innovations and an Inaccessible Economy are Driving Change in Higher Education


Are we seeing a new paradigm emerge in American higher education?

Since the mid-20th century, American college enrollment has been counter-cyclical to the economy: when the economy does well, college enrollment decreases. When the economy is doing badly, more people go to college.  

That didn’t happen in the pandemic. Instead, when the economy was doing badly, significant numbers of people dropped out of college, and new enrollments went down, and that trend has continued. Over the past two years, colleges have seen a total drop in enrollment of 7.8%.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse, told CNBC that “In the last 50 years, we’ve seen nothing close to the steep decline in enrollments over the last two years. With the population growing and the complexity and demands of the labor market increasing, it’s hard to imagine that we could see such a large decline.”

The problem gets even worse when you realize that the drop in college enrollment is unevenly distributed. It’s primarily lower and middle class workers who are dropping out of college, and the institutions serving them are seeing the biggest declines.  

This may represent a whole new set of priorities for many Americans, reflecting a major change in how they view the effectiveness of higher education and its relationship to their careers.

Innovating Education For Student Success

At Calbright, we’ve been tracking the way in which many people who want to change or enhance their careers are looking away from traditional degree programs — of any kind — and towards certifications. They’re looking for certifications that can be completed quickly, are recognized by industry, and may not even come from traditional educational institutions.

It’s too early to say for sure that this represents a sustained trend instead of a long, pandemic-related blip. But if these trends do continue, it would represent a sea-change in both American education and the workplace.  

Part of that change will be driven by innovation in the education sector, which is great. Online education may finally be coming into its own — not as a massive replacement for what already exists, but as a way to support the needs of specific student populations. Leading educational institutions are realizing they can offer programs that are more focused to the needs of certain students, and that they can do it faster and cheaper without sacrificing quality. New approaches like Competency Based Education (CBE) propose whole new ways of designing classes and measuring student progress — and the evidence is in that CBE works.  

This all represents a significant change, but it’s the right kind of change, driven by the right kind of factors.

The New Economy: Harder to Access

However, there’s another reason we’re seeing these trends in higher education. For many Americans — especially those struggling to access 21st century prosperity — the economic realities are getting much more difficult. Surviving is the priority.  

Talking to CNBC, Jobs For the Future CEO Maria Flynn suggested this may be the reason why higher education isn’t seeing the increases it traditionally does during an economic downturn.

“Those hit hardest by the pandemic are now thinking about how to get back into the labor market, not school,” she said.  

If this is true, then it raises the ironic possibility that higher education may finally succeed in making career education more accessible to those who need it, just as those who need it most are less able to take advantage of it.

Educational innovation alone can’t fix an unfair economy — but it can do a lot. If higher education is going through a consumer-led paradigm shift, then we can do the most good by addressing the barriers that are keeping those on the economic margin from being able to take advantage of educational opportunities. Things like affordability (which is why Calbright is free to Californians), flexibility (which is why we are online and allow people to study at their own pace, on their own schedules), fast results (which is why all of our programs can be completed in under a year), and a focus on what the students really want and need (which is why we use a CBE model and offer industry valued certifications, rather than degrees). It’s why we offer students academic coaching, success coaching, and career coaching, and make sure we can connect them to services they may need most in their lives.

This is a whole new model of education, designed for a new paradigm. The good news is that higher education has more capacity than ever to meet students where they are and support their goals. The bad news is that the need to do this — now — keeps growing ever more urgent.