Why a Trillion Dollar Post-Secondary Education Ecosystem Often Fails to Deliver

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If you’ve been alive for at least a couple of decades, you’ve very likely participated in some element of education and training that typically comes after high school or a GED.

Post-Secondary education is a very large, very complex ecosystem, of which “higher education” is only one part. In fact, based on “enrollments” industry trains far more people each year than go to college. They do this with internal programs as well as programs contracted through external providers. There is also a growing B2student market based on non-credit, non-degree programs that typically result in some sort of industry recognized credential. Although it is impossible to quantify the entirety of the industry delivered, B2B, government, and B2student post-secondary education, combined with higher education, in the U.S. it exceeds a trillion dollars and growing. As a point of reference, companies like Walmart, Amazon, and Google each easily spend a billion dollars a year on education and training programs, both internal and contracted. You can see more here, but the short version is that even though higher education (credit bearing, degree granting institutions) was a $670B business before COVID, it has been in decline for a decade, while other elements of the ecosystem are growing.

Despite a trillion dollars in spending, the results of formal education and training are very uneven and often present a negative ROI. How is this possible?

First, higher education, broadly speaking, is not built, structurally or functionally, to deliver what students, employers, and society actually need. While this has been the case for decades, in the face of accelerating change, volatile employment markets, and diminishing shelf-life of educational content, the traditional, degree-based higher education model is simply incapable of delivering the learning experience (or often the ROI) that the current reality demands. For example, even if a first-year student is lucky enough to enroll in a “new” program, the development and approval process for that program likely took one to three years in a traditional college. Even if our freshman completes the program in four years, by the time he or she graduates, the content they learned in their first year is at least 5 to 7 years old. In most cases, such a student would also have experienced curricular and pedagogical models that are centuries old. Of course, there are exceptions, and in some institutions, students engage in field and industry-based learning, are content creators themselves, learn in highly collaborative settings, and are assessed in authentic ways. However, that is very rare. But even in those cases, considering the fact that the average employment tenure in the U.S. was only 4.1 years (before COVID!), a college degree would have to support about 15 different professional roles over a typical career.

Relatedly, industry, when it does invest in training, almost always does so from a transactional, “I want this employee to do that thing,” perspective, rather than thinking about education and training from a human capital development perspective. Even soft skills training tends to be focused on solving discreet employee “deficits” as identified by the employer. Workforce development in general is also primarily transactional, with typically narrow, skills-based training, which is often effective for supporting low-end, entry level employment, but it usually does little for personal and professional growth that transfers across multiple contexts.

As a result, the entire post-secondary ecosystem mostly reflects incomplete, fragmented, and disconnected islands, each with its own generally short term, transactional goals. There are certainly examples of educational programs that develop highly fungible skills such as coding boot camps or certain clinical health programs, etc., as well as a few very unique degree-based higher education programs that genuinely transform students, but in general, the post-secondary education ecosystem as a whole either delivers stale (and expensive) degree programs via an ancient and inflexible pedagogical model or highly discreet skills training with limited transferability. A trillion dollars should buy a lot more!

So, what’s the answer?

What we really need is an ecosystem in which there is a unifying theme such as “human growth” or “human development” that empowers learners to effectively engage things such as change, ambiguity, complexity, other people, and life-long learning, with highly transferable skills development in areas such as change and crisis management, communications, adaptability, auto-didactic learning, teamwork, conflict resolution, creative problem solving, etc. And these objectives can exist across the entire ecosystem despite very different learning environments, providers, outcomes, etc. They can be embedded in everything from degree programs to boot camps as appropriate for the specific learning context, and they would support essentially all hard skills training as well. Imagine a cloud computing or blockchain or sales expert who is also skilled in change management and conflict resolution! A business analyst skilled in teamwork would produce far more accurate and valuable analytics as a result of working closely and effectively with business partners and other stakeholders. And maybe most important of all, a shared commitment to human development across the ecosystem would produce holistic, balanced people who are enthusiastic about and capable of solving big problems, while making the world a better place.

This new way of looking at post-secondary education is of particular importance now since the recession of 2008 and the pandemic have conspired to fundamentally change how people work. The 2008 recession pushed over fifty million people into the gig economy and the pandemic will permanently erase millions more jobs that survived the earlier recession, mostly in office support, hospitality, travel, and even manufacturing as companies shift to automation rather than rehiring workers. In November, Bill Gates predicted that half of business travel and 30% of office work will never come back. Moreover, recent research by Pew, found that two thirds of those currently unemployed by the pandemic are considering changing jobs and careers. So, not only will almost all of us have to continually learn new skills for the rest of our lives, we will also have to learn to manage constant changes in how, where, and with whom we work as well. There are many examples, but just think about the shift in office visits to telehealth caused by the pandemic. Depending on the type of practice, many clinics and hospitals will go from nearly zero telehealth visits before the pandemic to potentially 50% or more even after the pandemic is over. That will devastate businesses and employees dependent on people physically showing up such as orderlies, cafeterias, coffee shops, gift shops, parking concessions, etc.

In short, while the role of post-secondary education has always been predominantly about employment, even in traditional colleges and universities, the volatility of the workplace has never been greater, the average tenure never shorter, and the need to prepare people to navigate change more critical than it is now. Building unifying themes into the post-secondary ecosystem that actually support human growth rather than just isolated skills, are not only necessary for the continued viability of employees, but of society itself.

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