Pick and Choose: Higher Ed’s Answer to the Subscription Service Model

Higher ed is evolving to a less traditional, more on-demand model of delivery. Students have more options for enrollment than ever before, whether it be their first time attending a college or university, or their fifth.  

 Giving students options, developed in partnership with thought leaders and industry experts, will better prepare them for the future of work and give them the skills they need to succeed right out the gate.  

Michael Cunningham, Chancellor and CEO of National University System, sits down with Illumination host Amrit Ahluwalia to discuss higher education's shift in focus toward upskilling or reskilling programs, the 60-year curriculum, and whether a subscription model is in the industry's future. 

Some schools may be hesitant to adopt upskilling or reskilling programs. Such programs take a while to develop, and students only enroll for a short time, rather than traditional the four-year standard.  

These programs are usually based on employer needs for the present, not the future. When a program takes two or three years to complete, the content risks being outdated.  

“It’s almost a game of catch-up where non-traditional universities and some of the more progressive historical universities are focusing on that process and developing programs that can be completed within three months.” Cunningham says.  

Another area that needs focus is skills prediction: figuring out which skills are going to be required in the future, in order to better prepare students for work they may not know exists yet. Colleges and universities need to partner with higher ed thought leaders to develop these programs and ready students for tomorrow and today.  

The longer a course sits in the development process and the longer it takes for a student to complete, the less relevant it becomes.  

“Quality assurance is a big part of the process,” Cunningham says. “We have to take the time to find subject experts, but more and more, it has to do with politics. Not necessarily on the national stage but internally. University politics, getting departments in contact with one another, getting the prerequisites to sign off on courses. It takes a lot of time and it’s very political.”  

As hard as it is to develop the programs, the payoff can be may than worth it. Shorter, more digestible courses can prompt learners to continually return to an institution throughout their entire life. A 60-year curriculum, one that is constantly evolving to fit the needs of the learner, can be a way for students to reskill and upskill every few years to stay on top of the talent pool.  

“There will still be a place for the 18-year-olds coming out of high school, experiencing that four-year college degree,” Cunningham says. “On the flip side, we don’t have to have either traditional or non-traditional offerings; it’s just how we build courses. They then turn into programs, which can turn into credentials.” 

By giving students the opportunity to earn stackable credentials, they can mix and match  their learning to their needs. And by combining that level of flexibility with data analysis, students can be even better prepared for a future-proof career. 

“People will need to get certain jobs in the future by a certain period of time using statistical data,” Cunningham says. “We’ll be able to ask for your interests—say these are the jobs that are available now, in five years and in 10 years, and these are the skills employers need. We’ll be able to suggest a path for students to take.” 

Cunningham predicts a lifelong, subscription model for education, similar to how gyms operate. Education shouldn’t be thought of as a daily or monthly operation.  

Instead, education should be a service that people can return to when the time is right, not something that is over once a learner earns a piece of paper with their name on it. Developing an environment wherein people have the option to return should they wish is where Cunningham thinks we’re headed. But it could take some work to get there.  

“We have to meet the student, the employee, and the employer of tomorrow where they are,” Cunningham says. “You have to follow the alumni’s journey and make sure this is not just a four-year degree. You’re getting with us, and we’ll be with you for the rest of your life. It’s a completely different way to look at a relationship with a university.” 

There are going to be two sides to the future of higher education. The traditional four-year degree will likely always remain, but alumni looking to take their education to the next level will continue to have options. They are not going to have to re-enroll each time they are due to upskill; they will be able to learn on their own time, at their own pace, and acquire the skills both they and their employers desire.  

Scaling Non-Degree Education

Last updated: March 25, 2022


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