The idea that a college degree prepares students for a 50-year career has long been outdated; instead, we must think of learning as a lifelong process that intersects with the workforce continually. In 2016, the World Economic Forum wrote that the pace of change was “shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets.” This is true even for those individuals who don’t change jobs: the skills demanded are evolving even for the same roles. In 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that by 2022, no less than 54 percent of employees would require significant upskilling. This pace of change is structurally misaligned with how we have designed the interface between learning and work.
COVID-19 has accelerated dramatically the need for mid-career re-skilling and upskilling. Survey data conducted throughout the pandemic shows that over a third of workers expect they would need to change career fields if they lost their job, and would need additional education to do so. But even those who have not lost their jobs—like most of America’s 3.3 million teachers suddenly grappling with how to teach online—are in desperate need of new skills to adapt to the changes that COVID has wrought. Our country’s need for education has never been greater, but this does not fit neatly into mainstream higher education offerings or policy.
We must move from a one-size-fits-all educational model to one that meets learners where they are. It is incumbent on policymakers to help ensure systems are designed around student needs so that, no matter the realities they face, they have affordable and flexible options that provide them with the opportunity to succeed. WGU is proud to serve a high percentage of adult students with extensive life experience, many of whom have some college but no degree, and who find that the flexible schedule and online nature of WGU balances best with their other life responsibilities.
WGU supports state and local policy efforts to expand reliable broadband access to support education delivery to students. Reliable broadband allows students everywhere to access education and ongoing skill training at any time. While the internet continues to be a tool for educational transformation, it is more than that: COVID-19 has shown that broadband is the backbone for all education, not to mention remote working, healthcare, and everyday interactions. While students will eventually return to classrooms, education will forever be inextricably linked to broadband, and policymakers must commit to closing stark gaps in access to broadband.
In order to close equity gaps in educational attainment for students with low socioeconomic status and for individuals of color, broadband access is critical. According to a 2017 U.S. Census report, 36.4% of Hispanic and 30.3% of Black households (as opposed to 21.2% of white households) do not have access to the internet. With the proliferation of high-quality, online options for postsecondary education, the continued lack of access for individuals to basic broadband service can be the lone barrier to a student’s education, career, and overall well-being. Broadband is the cornerstone of a community’s ability to train, retain, and attract workers to fill vital roles like teachers and nurses. States, localities, businesses, education providers, and the federal government must work together to lead efforts across multiple agencies and regions to provide reliable broadband access.
WGU launched the Online Access Scholarship, $1M in year 1 to provide computers and cover internet costs for over 167 students. In 2021 that number should rise to 2,000 students.
An important part of access to learning must include an increase in digital literacy skills for students. Digital literacy goes deeper into students’ fundamental ability to interact effectively and be successful in a technology-reliant society. States must lead the way in increasing basic digital literacy skills for the millions of Americans who cannot use a computer and are not comfortable with online learning.
Businesses, governments, and foundations have been making strides in bridging the digital literacy gap by making devices and training available to learners of all ages. Existing resources such as public libraries and adult literacy programs have been utilized to advance digital learning and provide access points for low-income, urban, and rural individuals. Free digital literacy curriculum is also available to the public to cover topics such as online communication and collaboration, interaction with hardware and devices, computer privacy, safety, and security. Some states are proposing to provide structure and funding to digital literacy initiatives (examples include Arizona and Utah), while others, such as Oregon, are promoting digital literacy as a function of their Rural Broadband Office. Endeavors such as these are necessary to address digital blindspots at a foundational level and support learners as they enter and advance through their education and careers.
WGU recognizes that not every student is prepared for the rigors of a college education on day one. WGU’s history of success recognizing that many of today’s prospective students—whatever their age—need additional support and mentoring to succeed in college led to the creation of the Academy at WGU, a college readiness program to better serve students when readiness is a barrier to their success. The Academy allows students to complete college-level courses for credit in addition to a noncredit program, the Program for Academic and Career Advancement (PACA), which helps students develop confidence, persistence, and a positive academic mindset before taking on a regular degree program. Upon completing the Academy, students are guaranteed admission to WGU, or they can enroll in another institution. The Academy at WGU can be part of the solution for public policymakers to efficiently and effectively provide developmental education to students.
WGU applauds the many college readiness efforts across the United States at the institution, state, and local levels. These readiness programs, often piloted through the support of private foundations, have been proven to help low-income and first-generation students with the college process and provide additional mentoring options. These models should be supported as a means for states to provide better access and support for students. Strong Start to Finish, convened by the Education Commission of the States, has been bringing policymakers together to deepen work around supporting all students and is an excellent source of knowledge. As states grapple with the aftermath of COVID-19 and the impact it has on students’ learning trajectories and college readiness, these readiness programs can play a critical role in recovery.
Students face a variety of barriers in pursuing a college degree. Comprehensive wraparound services that include academic and non-academic supports—such as program mentors, mental health counseling, micro-grants for emergency student aid, and assistance with food, childcare, or transportation—can make the difference between a student staying in school and stopping out. One program in New York nearly doubled graduation rates by providing participating students individual advising, career counseling, tutoring, tuition reduction, transportation, and textbook assistance. To close equity gaps and drive student success, these types of comprehensive and individualized supports should be implemented wherever possible.
Attainment goals are set by states and should be regularly revisited. The goals should include provisions around access, success, and completion to ensure that underrepresented and underserved populations are effectively served.
These goals must have effective strategies attached, such as expanding capacity in a state’s higher education system, better aligning the cradle-to-career spectrum, ensuring high-quality and low-cost online options to meet students where they are and at a cost they can afford, and incorporating competency-based education so students can move flexibly through coursework.
In addition, states can replicate efforts, such as those in Indiana, to track and report student outcomes and equity gaps. Reporting this information in a usable format helps not only students and families but also policymakers to make data-informed decisions about educational options. Other states can use these reports as a model to inform policy and goals for educational attainment and to bridge attainment gaps for underrepresented populations.
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Sarah was a mother of three, working hard to provide for her family as an RN. Sarah spoke with several of her colleagues about the benefits of earning a bachelor’s degree from WGU. With the support of excellent instructors and dedicated program mentor, Sarah completed the program in just eight months and plans to continue her education and become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
Chris Woods knew he wanted to go back to school, but felt that his busy life couldn’t accommodate a traditional campus experience. That’s when Chris found WGU. With a positive attitude and renewed determination, Chris got back in the game to earn a degree from the Management and Leadership Master’s Program at WGU.