Colleges & Universities Are the New Competition for Associations in the Lifelong Learning Market

More than 40% of job requirements have changed since 2009 and, by 2022, the core skills required for most jobs will change by 42%. Where will people acquire the new skills they need? Associations? Maybe, maybe not. There’s new competition for associations in the lifelong learning market: colleges and universities.

Why higher ed is getting into the lifelong learning business

Colleges and universities are going through a tough time. 65% of Americans aren't satisfied with the higher education system, according to a survey from the New America Foundation. Traditional degree programs are feeling the heat from a number of directions:

•    Growing resistance to the increasing cost of tuition and fees
•    Shrinking pool of traditional students
•    Decrease in state funding for public universities
•    Proposed taxes on university endowments
•    Skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree in a changing economy
•    Increasing employer demand for skills over degrees

The president of Carnegie Mellon University said, “The unprecedented pace of societal change makes the need for reform more urgent. There is great pressure on higher education as the engine of progress in a knowledge-based economy.”

The “reform” he means is providing education that truly prepares students for the working world. But that’s not all. Colleges and universities believe undergraduate programs are just the beginning of a long educational partnership with alumni. To ensure their own sustainability, they’ve been making moves in recent years to become a primary provider of lifelong learning not only for alumni but also for other professionals seeking to acquire new skills.

competition for associations in the lifelong learning market

How higher ed is becoming the new competition for associations in the lifelong learning market

Colleges are putting more resources into online learning, not only for their undergraduate programs but for graduate and credentialing programs too. About 37% of graduate education in the U.S. is online or blended. Many top universities now offer online master’s degrees at about a third of the price of a traditional degree.

Some universities have flipped the admissions process. Learners who earn microcredentials offered by the university or MOOCs can apply those credits to degree programs. This stackable learning is a more affordable and flexible way for people to pursue continuing education.

Since many employers are more concerned with a person’s skills, not their degree, colleges are launching new digital credentialing programs that help learners acquire and demonstrate mastery of new skills. At least 20% of American colleges now offer digital badges. These digital credentials are complementing, not replacing, degree programs. For example, Western Governors University offers several microcredentials in the medical field that can be stacked and applied to other credential and degree programs.

Thanks to hefty tuitions and healthy endowments, colleges can afford (at least for now) to experiment with new ways of remaining relevant and sustainable. But your association can do the same and prevent higher ed from stealing your existing and future market share.

Mapping the skills needed in the workplace

Troubled by the degree relevancy issue, a dean at the University of South Florida came up with a list of skills their graduates would need to succeed in a variety of jobs. She overlaid this skills map on top of their liberal arts degree requirements to discover where their curriculum was coming up short. Department heads made changes to ensure students acquired the skills they needed.

Has your association mapped the skills needed in your industry and profession? You could follow the lead of the dean in Florida and look at entry-level job postings to come up with a list. Or, talk with employers about the skills needed for different positions along typical career paths.

competition for associations in the lifelong learning market

Partnering with industry to develop credentials

Colleges aren’t making these changes alone. Many of them are partnering with local employers to develop credentialing programs.

To fill the local skills gap in data analytics, cybersecurity, and machine learning, 14 employers and 12 universities in the Washington DC area have established Capital CoLAB (Collaboration of Leaders in Academia and Business). Students who complete the CoLAB credentialing programs will be given preferential treatment for internships and job interviews with CoLAB member companies.

The key to the success of these programs is employer buy-in. The programs are co-designed by employers who have a say in the knowledge, skills, and competencies represented in the credentials.

Bringing order to the digital credentials market

Since any organization can create and market a new digital credential, it becomes challenging for employers to understand what a credential represents. Earlier this year, a group of nine universities from around the world, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, established the Digital Credentials Initiative to establish a common infrastructure for credentials.

Their mission is to “create a trusted, distributed, and shared infrastructure that will become the standard for issuing, storing, displaying, and verifying academic credentials, digitally.” Learners will be able to maintain a verifiable record of their credentials from educational institutions to share with employers.

This initiative isn’t the first effort to attempt to bring transparency to the world of digital credentials. The Credential Registry is a cloud-based library that collects, maintains, and connects information on all types of credentials.

The name of your association may be widely recognized in your industry or profession, but do your credentials have the same name recognition? Do employers know what mastered competencies each of them represents?

Digital badges provide verifiable proof of competency thanks to their embedded meta-data, including description, criteria, issuer, timestamp and expiration, and other supporting evidence of mastery. Does your LMS support digital badges? Learners who use TopClass LMS can export the digital badges they earn to the Badgr Open Badges BackPack, which allows them to display their digital badges on social media, websites, and other platforms where employers can view them.

Colleges and universities see the increasing need for people of all ages to learn new technical and soft skills. They’re quickly developing new online learning and digital credentialing programs to meet those market needs. Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said:

“There are more adults to be served than there is capacity to serve them, and it’s not a zero-sum game. I hope the combination of these public institutions and private nonprofits, along with the expansion of distance and competency-based programs, will increase the number of credentialed individuals in the workforce and close the gap between where we are and where we need to be.”

Associations have the opportunity to provide the credentialing programs that will help members, students, recent graduates, professionals in transition, and industry professionals acquire the skills they need to remain employable. If you don’t, colleges and universities will surely step in and make themselves indispensable to multiple generations of learners.

lifelong learning
colleges and universities
Higher Education
professional development
skills gap
digital credentials
Digital Badges
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