How to Make Your Institution More Worker-Centric

How to Make Your Institution More Worker-Centric

Employers across the U.S. have programs in place to pay for their workforce’s college education, but those funds can be hard to come by for many. The estimated portion of eligible workers who use tuition benefit programs ranges from 1 to 10%. To boot, only half of American adults have more than a high school diploma, despite an increasing need for them to earn high-quality postsecondary credentials to stay relevant in a fast-changing labor market. 

Plenty of higher ed institutions downplay the need for more vocational programming—some finding it beneath their capabilities—and have been slow to partner with employers to deliver workforce education.  

But it’s clear that our industry’s mandate has to shift to offer work-relevant programming to diverse student populations. 

The structure of higher education isn’t designed with working adults in mind. Neither the employers that host these programs nor traditional institutions are serving the modern worker, sorely though it’s needed. 

Here’s how to make higher education more worker-centric.  

Make Workforce Education Available to Everyone 

The culprit for unused employee education benefits isn’t laziness, it’s money and time. The commitments of work/home life can make it hard for anyone to put in the hours required to skill up or reskill altogether. It’s imperative that anyone capable of providing an education make their programming accessible if it’s going to be an option for the modern worker.  

Offer Flexible Programming and Greater Support 

Being accommodating in your programming makes your institution a beacon for working adults. They’re often juggling many high-priority responsibilities at once, so the neater your offering fits into their schedule, the more likely they are to see value in it.  

Offering more skill-based credentials has the benefit of speaking to specific competencies that employers and learners care about. But they tend to be significantly shorter as well, which makes it easier for them to carve out time for learning.  

Although most learners in the U.S. are over 25, student support is also frequently made exclusive to younger learners. Kellie MacDonald and Jennie Jiang at the American Institutes for Research said this can be a problem for adult learners in dire need of academic or career support—arguably more so than your traditional fresh-out-of-high school learner. 

“This youth-centric nature of American postsecondary education is problematic for many adult learners,” wrote researchers MacDonald and Jiang in an article for the EvoLLLution. “They often face unique challenges related to different life circumstances, including but not limited to financial independence, dependents, caregiving, non-traditional education, postsecondary enrollment delays, and full-time employment.” 

Modifying your school’s offerings and broadening your support services means you’re far more likely to attract the workers who now make up most of the modern learner base.  

Make Programming Affordable, Relevant and Accessible 

When most American adults have just enough to get by, offering to reimburse a worker for their tuition is promising repayment for a purchase most can’t make in the first place. 

Employers are their own entities, but it is possible for institutions to offer their own programming in ways that serve the average worker. George Mason University recently moved to upskill workers displaced by the coronavirus pandemic, structuring their curriculum to allow individuals to attain the skills needed to qualify for local job openings. 

Today’s student is an experienced working adult, and is likely continuing to work as they learn. Trimming the price tag on select offerings makes them more accessible—and therefore, more attractive—to learners who’d otherwise rest on their existing skillsets. To that end, expanding programming to offer more flexible modalities and part-time offerings is just the icing on the cake.  

Partner With Employers for Workforce Education 

As any businessperson will tell you: It’s about who you know. There are few things as lucrative as a good partnership, and joining forces with trusted employers builds your institution and your local workforce at the same time.  

Make Your Institution Attractive to Employers 

Employers want to fill the skills gap. Any inefficiency in their workforce is as damaging to their business as yours are to your institution, and most with the resources are inclined to address them. To make your institution appealing to an employer is no small feat, but it’s worth every effort.  

Nicole Lembo, Manager of Talent Management and Academic Programs at JetBlue Airways, said it’s in an institution’s interest to pivot to serve working adults.  

“Increasing the number of students taking courses through your programs, whether it’s 100 credits or twelve, increases your revenue, persistence rates and graduation outcomes,” said Lembo in an article for the EvoLLLution. 

Lembo shared what makes an institution a good choice for partnership, and pointed to strong corporate engagement as a dealbreaker. 

“I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful difference it makes to allow your department heads/deans/provosts/etc. to have a direct relationship with one (or a few) company contacts,” Lembo said, affirming ease of use for corporate contacts as a key ingredient for success.  

She said the institution’s framework for corporate engagement should be as flexible as its programming: “If your partnerships team can be agile and work to create viable solutions for your various potential partners, you can’t lose.”  

Lembo said corporate partners want to manage their employees’ workforce education with as few hiccups as possible; calling on institutions to deliver with employer engagement practices that align 

“We simply want efficient ways to help our employees access college-level learning,” she said. 

Though some institutions worry about employer requests for lower admission or testing standards, Lembo said the need is for access—not an easy credential. 

“We don’t want special treatment, reduced requirements or less academic rigor for our students,” she said. “Those of us who want education and career resources for our employees also want them held to the appropriate academic standards.” 

With strong employer partnerships, you open your door to the students who make up most of the modern learner base. And once other employers see how you’re upskilling Company X, they’ll think of you the next time they think of workforce education. 

Modernize Education for the Modern Learner 

One education, one job, one life: This is the old way of learning, it won’t fill the increasing skills gap that’s left so many workers with skillsets that don’t match their jobs.  

The only way forward is for educators and employers to match their education and tuition programs with the needs of their students and workforce. Without this, higher education may continue to put itself at odds with the people who need it most. 

Learn how aligning your non-credit unit with workforce expectations attracts corporate partners and drives growth.  


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Last updated: July 7, 2021


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