Education must meet the needs of a flexible, versatile workforce

College costs too much. In both time and money, a four-year residential degree has rapidly become unaffordable for the vast majority of students, just as the bachelor’s degree has become a requirement for entry-level jobs.

The price of admission to the workforce is unacceptably high for the number of skilled workers our economy demands. In Washington, D.C., there is bipartisan understanding that the $1.5 trillion student loan debt is at dangerous levels as bipartisan support for providing alternative educational on-ramps to skilled jobs continues to rise.

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Six years ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were unveiled as a potential solution to the “cost-disease” of higher education. They provided access to free educational content from top-rated universities to anyone with an internet connection.

After the initial euphoria, a new model of MOOCs has emerged: well-designed, low-cost, certificate-bearing courses. The main difference? Instead of free statements of accomplishment from MOOCs, learners can now earn an affordable certificate to signal competence in a new skill.

The evolution of this new MOOC model — let’s call it the Credential-Earning, Lifelong Learning Online (CELLO) model — is concurrent with the development of the new reality: Workers can now hold a dozen or more jobs during a working lifetime. Can these workers go back to college every time they transition to a new job? No. 

The need for lifelong learning to sustain one’s career is more important than ever, and these CELLOs serve an increasingly vital purpose in filling the educational gaps between graduation and your next job. 

While the CELLOs are valuable for learners and the companies who employ them, the universities who create these courses must also find a way to sustain their production.

Charging a nominal fee for these courses dramatically improves completion rates for learners and creates new revenue for universities, which they can use to create more scholarships, experiment with new educational technologies, fund research and help with operating expenses. 

In the new economic reality of unsustainable student loan debt, universities cannot continue to raise tuition as they have been; yet, they must respond to new economic pressures, including a slowdown in international student enrollments due to volatile immigration policies, endowment returns tied to a turbulent stock market and constraints on tuition.

Meanwhile, operating costs are ballooning as college becomes more of an extension of home for those who can afford a residential, four-year degree. On-campus students expect more amenities and require more services and attention than ever before.

Additionally, universities should pay non-tenured teaching staff a living wage, and the unionization of graduate students continues to progress. Residential education isn’t just unaffordable for the majority of students, it’s becoming more unsustainable for the universities that offer it. 

Online education, on the other hand, is a growth industry. It allows learners to learn what they need on demand and provides corporations with the ability to educate their workforces at scale.

Just as universities are becoming extensions of home, forward-thinking corporations are becoming extensions of universities. IBM, GE and JetBlue have all pioneered innovative educational solutions that provide their workers with both skills and signals of competence through degree partnerships and the development of “new collar” jobs and credentials.

Wharton Online is working with a number of corporations, including CitiGroup, Lululemon and Carnival Cruise Lines to provide business education on the job to employees who would never have the chance to come to campus. 

Wharton is not the only educational institution actively providing lifelong learning to those who have never set foot on campus; many of our peers are creating new forms of online education which provide quality and access at an affordable price point.

Most of these programs are based on a MOOC-type model and provide certificates that signal that learners have acquired workplace-relevant knowledge and skills. In just three years, Wharton Online has issued over 150,000 certificates to learners who report success in using these new credentials to advance their careers.

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In order to better serve our learners and our corporate clients, we recently worked to attain International Association of Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accreditation for our online courses so that learners can receive external, certified professional credit for their certificates and more easily gain reimbursement from their employers.

Looking to the future, there is no reasonable solution to our national higher education and workforce development challenges that does not involve online education. Current projections have this market reaching $287 billion globally by 2023, a 55-percent increase in just five years. 

One well-known distributor of online educational content, Coursera, projects $140 million in revenue this year.

With a national economy that needs to expand, an educational system that has to find non-tuition forms of revenue to sustain itself and a workforce which will require multiple episodes of learning throughout the lifespan, quality online learning is poised to play a critical role in helping millions navigate the future of work.

Anne Trumbore is senior director at Wharton Online, a strategic, revenue-producing, digital learning initiative at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.