- The pandemic has accelerated a trend of digital transformation of higher education institutions that was already underway.
- Better access to education can help close growing disparities in educational achievement and job opportunities, made worse by COVID-19.
- Higher education institutions can leverage technology to create more accessible degrees, design more practical, competency-based degree programs, and remove barriers to admission.
Higher education institutions around the world are undergoing an unprecedented digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has also exacerbated pre-existing gender gaps and worsened job prospects for many young people. Youth employment fell by 8.7% in 2020, more than double the rate for adults aged 25 and over.
However, expanding access to education can unlock economic opportunities. A higher level of education increases employment rates, job security and lifetime earnings.
In this economic landscape where full global economic recovery remains elusive and uneven, students must have access to skills-based learning opportunities that prepare them to enter the modern job market. It is more important than ever for higher education – including delivery, admissions and programs – to enable socio-economic mobility through equitable access.
Higher education institutions need to leverage technology and redesign curricula to increase access and equity while equipping students with the skills needed to find jobs.
Leveraging Technology for Affordable and Accessible Degrees
Advances in technology and e-learning, in particular, have revolutionized the way universities can deliver higher education. For example, course enrollment on Coursera doubled in 2020 and increased by 32% in 2021. Universities are adapting online degree programs to reach learners around the world and meet growing demand.
Online learning technology is opening the doors of the world’s top universities to students from all over the world, and higher education institutions can use it to their advantage. IIT Roorkee, ranked among the best institutes in India, offers an online graduate certificate in Data Science and Machine Learning. More than half (55%) of the students in the program live outside India. The students come from 14 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. More than a quarter of their students come from the United States.
Universities can also broaden access by unbundling master’s and bachelor’s degrees into open online courses and stackable titles. By using open content to acquire students for online degrees at a lower cost, universities can pass these savings on to their students. For example, the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia offers an online master’s degree in software engineering that is 30% more affordable than on-campus master’s degrees from the university’s Uniandes engineering school.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides another opportunity for universities to develop large-scale programs at an affordable price. In the University of Michigan’s Master of Applied Data Science program in the United States, faculty and staff have implemented automated graders to save time and streamline lab management. The cloud infrastructure has also allowed the university to reduce staffing and DevOps costs. In addition to increasing efficiency, AI technology can also identify students who need one-on-one support to improve their results.
Create job-appropriate programs for the development of practical skills
Amid the rapid digital transformation of the labor market, universities must evolve their programs to meet new labor demands. By leveraging data-driven market research, such as the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, universities can identify the most in-demand degree programs based on job growth and align those employment outcomes programs.
Degree programs should equip students with skills and practice using them to succeed in the job market. The University of Michigan’s Master of Applied Data Science hosts more than 150 cloud-based labs and assignments across more than 30 degree courses. Graduate students can access a preconfigured in-browser Jupyter Notebook environment with high compute resources, persistent storage, and real-world datasets.
Queen Mary University of London in the UK recently launched an online Master of Science in Applied Data Analytics to meet the needs of today’s global workforce. The degree program prepares students for the roles of data scientist and data analyst, identified by the Forum as the first emerging job. Practical projects help students apply their skills and build a portfolio of work.
Coursera data shows that hands-on projects and coding assignments can lead to a 30% higher rate of skill development and gains in learner satisfaction and career outcomes.
Increase equity by removing barriers to admission
Many higher education institutions are removing application requirements to foster a more diverse student body.
All three online graduate programs at the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States offer performance-based admissions. Students are admitted by following a performance path – a series of three one-credit courses with at least a 3.0 grade point average (GPA). No application, entrance exam, transcript or fee is required.
The university’s first online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering graduate did not have a bachelor’s degree. Instead, he used his more than five years of industry experience at leading technology companies such as Apple and Intel, coupled with knowledge gained from open course content, to complete the program in a year. Over the past year, the university has seen a 30% growth in the number of students admitted to this program.
To better serve underrepresented populations, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has removed standardized testing requirements from several online degree programs. His Online Masters in Accounting (iMSA) the number of applications alone increased threefold after the removal of the requirement for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), typically used by business schools to assess skills in reading, writing, analysis, quantity and in oral expression. Programs on Coursera also saw a 73% year-over-year growth of underrepresented graduate students in 2021.
Some universities create degree paths using content from industry educators. Learners can take the Google IT Support Professional certificate to prepare for entry-level IT jobs in less than six months. They can then stack the certificate into a full degree – often a requirement for management roles. Thirty-four percent of students currently enrolled in the University of London’s Bachelor of Computer Science program in the UK have completed the Google IT program. Many continue to work while pursuing their studies.
This approach shows promising results for reaching underrepresented populations, as 58% of US participants in Google’s IT program identify as veterans, women, or black or Latinx.
Such programs produce highly skilled graduates accustomed to learning and working remotely while creating a more diverse hiring pool for global companies.
Rapid digital transformation and the COVID-19 crisis have posed unprecedented challenges to the global workforce. By rethinking online degree issuance, higher education institutions can pave the way for equal access to affordable, job-relevant, skills-based degrees for people around the world.