Policymakers should take heed of higher education innovation

If conventional wisdom says that three is a trend, then what is four, five or a dozen? We’d like to believe that it’s the beginning of real change.

That’s why we are excited about the growing number of public/private partnerships that combine resources and collaboration to create innovative, affordable new higher education opportunities.

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To name a few, when UPS faced a critical workforce shortage, it teamed up with Kentucky state government and local higher education institutions to create Metropolitan College. Now, UPS employees receive regular company benefits plus tuition and book expenses at the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College.

Earlier this year, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield announced a partnership to make an associate’s or bachelor’s degree available at no cost for eligible full-time and part-time associates in Wisconsin through College for America at Southern New Hampshire University.

With 600,000 manufacturing jobs unfilled each year in the U.S., Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky founded KY FAME (Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing), an employment training partnership that includes more than 75 employers statewide. Students attend college two days a week and work 24 hours a week learning valuable skills on the job. After five semesters, they can earn an Associate’s in Applied Science in Industrial Maintenance Technology and are qualified for a high-paying job with potentially zero school debt.

In perhaps the highest profile effort, coffee drinkers see fliers at Starbucks that announce its partnership with Arizona State University to provide tuition coverage to employees working toward a bachelor’s degree as part of The Starbucks College Achievement Plan. 

This enlightened investment in education by private-sector partners is just one piece of the innovation. Such investments make sense to employers because colleges and universities are responding to their requests for more flexible, creative and learner-focused programs.

Institutions of higher education are syncing up better with employer and student needs, in part, by redefining courses and programs to focus on competencies, or skills, rather than on courses defined by seat time. Referred to as competency-based education, this approach gives learners access to education that is flexibly scheduled and tied to workforce demands. Roughly 600 colleges are in the design phase for a new competency-based program or already have a program in place.

The result is that employers are more open to footing the tuition bill and supporting employee education when there is greater public sector cooperation, certainty about the relevance and quality of instruction and flexibility in terms of employee time and cost. 

These creative partnerships should be seen not as exceptions or experiments but as the beginning of new ways to offer higher education that keep our nation globally competitive.

And they couldn’t come soon enough.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States’ ranking for education attainment has dropped from first to 11th for adults ages 25-34. The Lumina Foundation estimates that 60 percent of Americans will need high-quality credentials and degrees by 2025 to meet the nation’s workforce needs, a 20 percent increase in less than a decade.

As if this isn’t already a steep enough climb, it appears as if the need for better educated Americans at all stages of their lives – from the college-ready 18-year-old to the single mother, the mid-career professional or the aged-out retiree – is dangerously at odds with how Americans view access to higher education.

A new PDK/Gallup Poll finds that just 48 percent of U.S. adults believe that a college education today is “very important.” Half of all parents also said that it is not very likely or not at all likely that they will be able to pay for college for their oldest child. Increasingly and to the detriment of our future, many Americans see higher education as a luxury they can’t afford.

That is why policymakers must study and learn from innovations that are helping thousands of Americans access higher education to learn skills that open doors and launch new careers. Private investment in these efforts underscores the value of education that creates better learners, communicators, innovators and team players – exactly what U.S. employers want and need.

More important, policymakers at the federal, state and local levels should see these bold examples as more than a trend. They reflect demand for new ways to make lifelong education available, affordable and relevant to adults at all stages of their lives.

Leaders from policy, business and education sectors must work together to identify and share best practices, continue to improve quality and make such opportunities the rule rather than the exception. That is where we must go. And thanks to a growing number of private and public sector trailblazers, we are learning how to get there.

Adkisson is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. King is senior consultant with HCM Strategists.