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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

January 15, 2021

Future of Higher Education

Clearing the path to opportunity.

Facade of government building

By WGU Team

The end of 2020 is cause for celebration, but many of last year’s problems have followed us into the new year. Families are suffering greatly as the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, displacing workers, destroying entire industries, and leaving millions of Americans in search of their next opportunity.

Some 22 million Americans have lost their jobs or have been furloughed. And though the unemployment rate is down to 6.7% from its 14.7% peak in April, unemployment claims have risen in recent weeks. For state leaders – many of whom will begin to gather in statehouses this month – getting their constituents back to work will be a top priority.

As states begin their legislative sessions, policymakers must focus on clearing the path to opportunity. To do this, states must ensure that high-quality short-term, work-relevant education and training programs are available to help residents quickly upskill or reskill. State leaders must also invest in high-speed internet access for all, allowing their constituents – rural, urban, low-income – to connect to the digital world, including the many education and training programs available online. And finally, states must shift to skills-based hiring; a move that will dramatically level the playing field for many displaced workers.

Training programs to upskill/reskill.

Education is one of the surest paths to opportunity. But traditional higher education – brick and mortar four-year institutions – are not designed to serve mid-career adults who need to quickly upskill or reskill. The four-year degree is too expensive and too much of a time commitment for Americans who need an opportunity right now. Shorter-term, work-relevant options like certificate programs and competency-based degree programs – especially those available online – will be critical to helping displaced workers find their next opportunity. Providing aid for short-term credentials and degree options aligned to job opportunities must be prioritized. States and education providers should also work together to develop education and training programs that suit local needs. 

Improved internet access.

To pursue available online upskilling and reskilling programs, the first requirement is reliable internet access. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine life without WiFi. But for an estimated 18.3 million Americans, a lack of connectivity is a harsh daily reality that disproportionately affects rural and low-income residents. Without internet access, these populations are left at a severe disadvantage. Access to the internet is a necessity of life, learning, and opportunity.

To ensure equity in access to learning and all the internet provides, state leaders must move quickly to partner with technology companies and invest in fiber optic, cellular, and satellite networks. The availability of high-quality, work-relevant credentials delivered online is expanding rapidly, and addressing the disparities in digital connectivity can drive immediate economic and educational opportunity. 

Skills-based hiring.

States must encourage skills-based hiring. The four-year degree has long been the coin of the realm, but skills are rapidly evolving to be the currency of the labor market. Employers are increasingly placing value on skills, not what credential a candidate has earned. And this is a good thing: talent is distributed far more equally than access to college degrees. Skills-based hiring values all learning, be it work-based, self-study, or from military training, and would serve as a more objective means by which a candidate is assessed.

As part of our commitment to equity and access, WGU is committed to advancing skills-based education and hiring. WGU is a founding member of the Open Skills Network, a group of education providers, tech companies, and employers dedicated to advancing skills-based hiring and education by developing a common language of skills. This shared skills language can reduce the importance of the subjective processes by which today’s workers seek opportunities – resumes, job applications, interviews – and instead focus on the objective merit an applicant brings to the table. By clearly articulating a candidate’s skills, we can more efficiently and effectively connect talent with available workforce opportunities. This is a win-win for workers and employers alike and contributes to our nation’s economic competitiveness.

As states across the country begin to convene their legislative sessions, strengthening the workforce will be a top priority. COVID-19 has devastated personal finances and economies.   State leaders must focus on common-sense policies that can drive their constituents forward: increasing access to high-quality education and training options, expanding broadband access, and encouraging hiring based on skills, not just degrees. Each of these priorities can ensure an equitable rebound from COVID, empowering all Americans to reach their fullest potential. 

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