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Working Together for Higher Education Reform

Aug 1, 2023

by Aaron Silverman
Office of the President

Pissi Adam started working at Amazon shortly after earning an associate degree at a community college in New York. As a self-described lifelong learner, Pissi wanted to further his education so he could eventually take on more responsibility, yet most postsecondary programs lacked the flexibility he needed as a working professional.

After several years working full time in the retailer’s fulfillment department, Pissi learned about the expansion of Amazon’s Career Choice program which included a partnership with Western Governors University (WGU). With an interest in Information Technology, Pissi enrolled and eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in information technology management. Thanks to the university’s unique online, competency-based education model that allows learners to progress as soon as they demonstrate mastery, Pissi progressed quickly in his education and has since earned an MBA in IT Management and an M.S. in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance.

Pissi’s story is an encouraging reminder of what’s possible when stakeholders across the education to workforce ecosystems work together and embrace innovative models that meet learners where they are.

Powering the Workforce: A Special Event from WGU and Gallup

Across the country, countless individuals like Pissi are motivated to pursue education and progress in their careers, but sadly many postsecondary institutions are not designed to serve them. Too often programs lack the flexibility that individuals need—especially working learners and those juggling multiple responsibilities—and they’re not designed with an explicit focus to prepare learners for the opportunities they seek. The end result is that many individuals are held back from fulfilling their dreams, culminating in workforce shortages and skills gaps that hurt local economies and inhibit the ability of industries to operate at their fullest capacity.

With challenges like these in mind, on Wednesday, July 19 WGU and Gallup co-hosted a special event in Washington, D.C. bringing together bipartisan policymakers, educators, business leaders, students, and alumni to discuss promising innovations with the potential to advance student outcomes. Anchored on WGU’s most recent Alumni Outcomes survey—produced annually in partnership with Gallup—the event not only celebrated the significance of WGU’s innovative learning model, but demonstrated the importance of deploying innovations within the guardrails of outcomes-based accountability.

To that end, WGU President Scott Pulsipher kicked off the event noting that “innovation without impact is arguably just a bad idea.”

Following President Pulsipher’s remarks, Gallup’s Stephanie Marken shared several key findings from last year’s report that demonstrate the efficacy of WGU’s unique model. During a time when Americans’ trust in the institution of higher education is at an all-time low, Stephanie revealed that “77% [of survey respondents] strongly agree that the degree they got from WGU was worth the cost.”

The outcomes outlined in the report show that new technologies and innovative delivery models that enable greater personalization and workforce relevance really can make all the difference for learners.

Impact One-by-One: A Case Study in Enabling the Future Workforce

In our current higher education system, the worlds of learning and working are largely separate. But as more working learners seek to upskill and reskill, and as more programs recognize the importance of aligning learning outcomes to workforce needs, it’s increasingly clear that these worlds need to blend.

Amazon extols the same ideals as WGU, investing in their individuals with pre-paid tuition including at WGU, and tapping into their intrinsic motivation to advance in their lives. In a panel discussion with President Pulsipher, Stephanie Marken, and Pissi Adam, Tammy Thieman, Global Director of Amazon Career Choice, shared of their education benefit, “We have a network of schools, and we spend a lot of time partnering with those schools to really double down on our people getting through the program. And after they get through the program, are they landing in that next job? And so, making sure that regardless of the modality that the outcomes are really there. And certainly, that's something that we're holding the schools and our network accountable to.”

“I'm really grateful that Amazon Career Choice partnered with WGU to allow me to earn a bachelor's degree,” Pissi shared. “It helped me a lot working with [Amazon] HR to arrange flexible scheduling so that I could accelerate my coursework and complete my degree faster.”

Investing in educational pathways like Amazon does has never been more critical as our economy continues to see growing misalignment between educational outcomes and skills needed in the workforce. And research shows these partnerships are highly valued by employees. Americans without college degrees cite employer-education partnerships as the number one factor that would increase their confidence that additional education or training is worth the cost, according to survey data from the Strada Education Network.

Innovating for Impact in Education and Workforce

Closing the event, Mike Leavitt, former Governor of Utah and co-founder of WGU, shared a story about a gift he received in 2022 in celebration of WGU’s 25th Anniversary. A ticker clock sits in his office and every morning at 8:30 the numbers turn to represent the latest graduates. Recalling the moment he left for this event, the ticker showed 332,011 graduates whose lives had been forever changed. 

Seeing daily changes to graduates is not typical among traditional institutions that require students to follow a prescribed course and semester schedule to earn a bachelor’s degree. When Leavitt and 18 other governors decided to create an entirely new institution dedicated to learning, they challenged the notion that time should be the constant variable.

"It is a step in reversing the mismatch between what a student knows and giving them the information that they ultimately need to be able to match their skills and their interests with what the workplace needs.”

- Sen. Mitt Romney

Born of that was WGU’s interpretation of competency-based education. As former Colorado governor and WGU co-founder Roy Romer had wisely stated at the time, “I want to know that my pilot not only has the knowledge to fly the plane, but that they can actually land it.”

Leavitt led a bipartisan discussion with Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) about the impact of this decision, and the opportunity for other institutions to embrace it. Just a few hours before their panel, in fact, the Senators introduced a bill that sought to fortify competency-based education in federal law as a viable alternative to traditional models of higher education.

As we heard from Pissi, innovations that have personalized his learning journey—including online learning and competency-based education—have been key to his success, invigorating his desire to learn more and advance in his career and life.

For the millions of learners in this country who are considered “nontraditional,” we owe it to them to recreate how we teach, learn, and work; and must develop modern policies and practices that advance every individual on their own terms.

As President Pulsipher noted, “Every one of us is needed to meet the challenges of today, and our work is just getting started.”

For more, watch the highlight video:

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