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3 takeaways for higher ed from ASU+GSV

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Universities are losing students. Can edtech develop new pathways for upward mobility and fill the gap?

Under Secretary of Education James Kvall expresses concern about the decline in U.S. college enrollment. [Starts at 2:20.]

By Lisa J. Anderson

The must-attend event for education technology investors” is what The New York Times called the ASU+GSV Summit in a 2015 story. This year’s three-day event certainly lived up to that billing. Now in its 13th year, the summit is still the place to be for anyone in the private sector trying to do education innovation. 

Some 15,000 edtech executives, venture capitalist, scholars, nonprofit leaders and educators flocked online and in-person to the April 4-6 annual gathering, organized by Arizona State University and the venture capital firm Global Silicon Valley in San Diego. While many had been to the summit before, they remarked that 2022's gathering was different in some key aspects.

Among the changes was the increased attention to providing educational opportunities to employed adults who do not have college degrees, sometimes referred to as “working learners.” There seemed to be greater emphasis this year on the pressure that universities feel to address the needs of this group. And there was more discussion of collaborations between higher ed and the private sector to support working learners.

Here are three takeaways:

1. Higher education is becoming less appealing to many students.

The Biden Administration recognizes that a decrease in the number of students in higher ed could indicate a new reality of declining interest in higher education. “We are very, very concerned,” said Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal in an interview on the ASU+GSV Stage X . “It’s not clear we can relax and wait for these things to come back on their own, because I’m not sure they will.” [See the video above for his full remarks, starting at 2:20.]

Kvaal cited a drop in student loan applications by 350,000 from April last year. This information echoes the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that enrollments have declined by 5.1 percent nationwide since spring 2020. Colleges and universities across the United States report struggling to fill seats, emptied in part by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but also by growing skepticism about the value of a college diploma.

“It’s really heartbreaking to think about the potential for a permanent dent in our educational attainment,” Kvaal said.

2. The push for alternative credentials has gained powerful momentum.

Kvaal recognized that the decline in enrollment signals the need for new approaches to reach those people who don’t complete a college degree. Workforce needs have shifted dramatically as employers seek workers with skills-based knowledge of technologies that did not exist ten, five, or even two years ago. While America’s knowledge-based economy is growing, its skilled workforce is not keeping pace. Our education system needs to adapt.

Kvaal called for “programs that are fast, that have quick payoff, [and] that are flexible.” 

There was wide agreement at the conference that the nation has an insufficient number of programs geared to adult learners. Citing a study by Strada Education Network, Connor Diemand-Yauman said that 50 million working adults in the United States lack a bachelor’s degree and are not making a living wage. While Merit America, the nonprofit he co-founded, provides educational services tailored to their needs, such programs that offer onramps to new careers are not available for the vast majority of working learners, he said as part of a panel on industry-led credentials.

Diemand-Yauman pointed to the rise of workforce credentialing programs, such as Google’s Career Certificate Program, as an example of how it could be done. Merit America is partnering with Google to help people receive inexpensive, flexible and relatively quick training for high-growth fields such as data analytics, and IT support. 

Lisa Gelvelber, founder of Grow with Google, said that since the launch of the Career Certificate Program in 2017 they have graduated 70,000 Americans, 55 percent of whom are students of color. “About half of our graduates start the program making less than $30,000 a year, and they’re graduating into fields that on average have entry level salaries of $60,000 to $70,000,” she said.

By setting their own educational standards for learning, companies such as Google and Amazon, among others, are offering an alternative to what’s being taught at established higher education institutions. Some universities, colleges and community colleges are starting to offer credit to students who have earned a Google certificate.

At another panel on the future of “HireED” pathways, optimism gushed about the prospects for new certificates. Anant Agarwal, chief open education officer at 2U Inc, which offers “micro-bachelor’s” degrees and other forms of alternative credentialing, said that he and others have been producing —“for a while”— courses that enable reskilling of working learners. “It’s just going to take time to scale,” he said. Another panelist, Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, which has one of the largest online course catalogs, said that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the equation. “People have experienced online learning and increasingly remote work — it'll never be the same again,” he said.

Maggioncalda sounded upbeat about universities adjusting to the new reality. “There are ways to help universities by partnering, where they don't have to make all the changes themselves, they don't have to figure out all the things themselves, they don't have to create all the content themselves,” he said. “It’s happening now and it's happening quickly. . . . It's a problem that's seeing solutions arise faster and faster.” 

Another push for alternatives to college degrees comes from corporate leaders who see the skills gaps as the biggest threat to their business. According to a Deloitte survey published in Fortune, companies are growing frustrated with the higher education establishment, said panelist Jeff Tarr, CEO of Skillsoft. “The companies are putting pressure now [on universities and colleges],” he said. “That’s what’s different.”

3.​​ We need research to keep us from flying blind.

The recent growth of industry credentials suggests that the future of higher education will be populated by a wider variety of providers and certifications and thus require new forms of assessment, funding and governance. Many at ASU+GSV voiced confidence that we’re on the brink of a better world order, in which universities will share much more credentialing authority with the new edtech providers,

Mitchell Stevens, a professor of education at Stanford University, suggested that it’s still too soon for such enthusiasm. “Have you noticed how much good news there is at ASU+GSV?” he asked, questioning the research results that show the remarkable efficacy of many of the latest innovations. “All of the numbers that should be going up are going up, and all of the lines that should be going down are going down,” he said.

He explained that true science is much more messy with null hypotheses and awful outcomes to be expected. And others noted that the pressure to get a product to market did not go hand-in-hand with research integrity.

For the conference, Stevens organized a panel on the science of workforce learning, following up on a National Science Foundation-funded report, An Applied Science to Support Working Learners, that he co-authored last year. The premise of the panel, as well as the report, is that working learners may be the group “most in need of innovation in education,” but that “there has been no comparable [institutional] investment in understanding their needs,” he said. He opened his panel by likening the flurry of activity around alternative credentials  to “the wild west” — without any rules or authorities to impose order. 

The panel explored how the federal government is essentially flying blind, as few of the new alternative credentialing programs rely on federal funds, such as Pell Grants and student loans, and thus do not submit data about student outcomes and other measures of programs’ successes. 

So what is the role of leading research universities?

It may not be providing the pathways for adult learners to gain the skills they need to achieve upward mobility. “We historically are not good at educating at scale at low cost,” Stevens said. What these institutions do well, he said, is long-term science projects that span a wide array of disciplines.

“Places like Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Irvine [and others] have been spectacularly underutilized,” Stevens said. The question they now should be posing to edtech leaders, he added, is “How can we be of service to the work you’re doing in your organizations?”

Lisa Anderson is a seasoned higher education practitioner with over a decade of experience in program management, strategic planning, cross-functional collaboration, grant writing, and student development. She works as Associate Director of Educational Partnerships at Stanford Digital Education. A practiced mezzo-soprano, you can often find her rehearsing classical music.