Report: Universities Helping Workers and Students Upskill

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Andréa Rodriguez one of the report’s contributors and the director of the Coalition of Urban Serving UniversitiesAndréa Rodriguez one of the report’s contributors and the director of the Coalition of Urban Serving UniversitiesA new report from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) outlines the need for higher education to develop more flexible pathways for students to earn a degree or credential and for community members to gain skill training as life-long learners. The report also points to programs at universities that are already reimagining how to meet these pressing needs.

“The pandemic really forced higher education to rethink any barriers or challenges that exist in the institution,” said Andréa Rodriguez one of the report’s contributors and the director of USU, a president-led organization of 40 public urban research universities. “The report shows how institutions are now addressing workforce demands through collaboration and partnerships. And listening to students’ experiences.”

Titled “Building A Future Workforce for All Learners,” the report looks at three trends altering the higher education landscape: a quickly moving economy creating new training needs for workers; shifting student demographics as older, nontraditional students with prior work experience grow more common; and rising employer demand for “21st Century Skills” like data analysis.

“The higher education default can be to do things on its own, but given how much has changed in the pandemic, universities need to also change how they approach their work,” said Rodriguez. “We hope university leaders will see from this report how partnerships could create more opportunities for learners to develop new skills or upskill. No one has to do this alone.”

APLU, a research, policy, and advocacy organization for public and land-grant universities, has partnered with USU to launch in 2022 a learning community for universities to explore alternate learning pathways. Part of the goal is to help answer questions the report touched on.

“The big questions we hear from universities right now have to do with microcredentials,” said Rodriguez. “If you have someone with ten or more years of experience and a high school diploma, maybe some certificates, but not a bachelor’s degree, what can the university do to provide some kind of pathway to enable that learner to not take four to six years to get the degree? Could we give credit to prior learning or to someone’s work experience? What about military experience? These are the kinds of issues on people’s minds.”

Among the report’s example programs tackling these issues is a micro-credentialing initiative at Florida International University (FIU). The initiative started about a year and a half ago. Learners, including current students and community members, can earn badges in skills like financial literacy, thinking and communicating with data, and artificial intelligence.

“FIU is really focusing on a shift from student to learner more broadly,” said Dr. Bridgette Cram, assistant vice president of academic and student affairs at FIU. “The microcredentialing philosophy is to help learners validate the skills they learn when looking for that job.”

Because FIU is an urban-serving university, Cram added that they are especially looking to help community learners upskill or re-skill and fill gaps in the workforce. FIU, for instance, created a COVID-19 Contract Tracing badge for community members, which the report also highlighted.

“We serve as an anchor institution in our community,” said Cram. “This is a different approach to higher education, so building those relationships with the community and faculty can make the program more successful to meet people’s needs.”

The APLU report pointed to another example initiative at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which issues web-enabled digital badges to students who complete the Capital CoLAB Generalist Digital Tech Credential. Students in non-STEM degree programs can earn the credential by completing courses in disciplines that cover skills like data science and cybersecurity.

“We hear the industry loud and clear,” said Dr. John Leonard, executive dean and professor of VCU’s College of Engineering. “If I had a magic wand, every student who graduated VCU would have a digital badge, no matter their major, because it would show that they had a minimum level of proficiency to get jobs. It’s all about helping people climb up the economic ladder.”

Looking ahead, Rodriguez will be watching how universities can work together to come up with solutions in a rapidly changing economy with increasingly diverse student needs. 

“And how can they scale what they have already started?” she said. “We know that higher education traditionally can launch a program, but it can fizzle out in a year or two. So, how can they continue, scale, and thrive? Does it mean pairing with more employers? I’ll be curious to see and to learn how we can be better agents to better support them.”

To Leonard, the expansion of alternate learning pathways at universities is inevitable.

“Eventually, I think many or all of the universities will have to look at how they will incorporate these kinds of badges or other initiatives into their curriculum,” said Leonard. “We’re all trying to leverage what we’ve learned from COVID to give more flexible opportunities to people.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.