Trends for the Future: 10 Alternate Education Pathways

It’s no secret that higher education is changing; I’ve spoken about it here plenty of times, and recently discussed my thoughts at IdeaFestival. The one constant we’ve seen has been that nothing is constant, and a world that traditionally has been slow to adapt to change is being dragged into the future.

I hear a lot of anxiety from partner institutions about what the future holds. What will be the next innovation? How disruptive will it be? How can institutions prepare for the future and ensure that they are staying relevant while also continuing to serve their core purpose of educating students?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have identified a few trends that I believe will play a significant role in higher education in 2016. From bootcamps to competency-based education, from enterprise partnerships to curated degrees, education is getting more specific, more specialized and more streamlined. Students want to learn skills that will help them get a job, and they want those skills quickly. 2016, I believe, will help bring a resurgence of vocational education. Are you ready?

1. Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Competency-based education is clearly growing. Two years ago, only 52 schools were exploring competency-based models; this year, that number has grown to 600 schools.

Competency-based models, which teach students fine-grained skills rather than concepts, also allow students to apply their experience to their education. This model, which is ideal for older learners or those who are seeking specific skills, can be streamlined for faster completion times. Understanding how to credit prior experience and how to deliver the best educational experience possible are areas of focus in 2016.

2. MOOCs

Although MOOCs were a big part of the conversation a few years ago, the hype has died down. But that doesn’t mean MOOCs have gone away. As Scott Jaschik pointed out, we’ve seen MOOCs begin to morph into diverse “MOOClike substances,” as some universities have begun to use MOOC components as credit-bearing course content.

Recently, Georgia Tech teamed with leading MOOC provider Udacity and AT&T to offer an Online M.S. in Computer Science, the first-ever master’s degree program delivered through a MOOC platform. Students may take individual courses at no charge, or enroll in the degree program through the university. Similarly, Arizona State University and edX recently partnered to offer a selection of MOOCs that, with an additional fee, may be used as credit toward a degree program. By fall 2016, ASU expects to offer enough of these introductory MOOCs that students will be able to complete their entire freshman year online, and at a deep discount.

This expansion of the MOOC experience will continue to shape how online education is delivered.

3. Learning “bootcamps” and nanodegrees

What started as a call for skilled laborers in the technology industry has grown into a promising model for alternate education. Skills-based training camps such as Learning House’s own Coding Bootcamps, provided through The Software Guild, which are typically faster and less expensive than full degrees, have been growing in popularity. While initially focusing on tech skills, room for growth exists in a number of areas.

In addition to bootcamps, companies have begun to develop nanodegrees, such as those offered through Udacity, which are specific, short programs designed to offer credentials in narrow skill sets. The possibilities for both bootcamps and nanodegrees are almost endless.

4. Pre-enrollment credits

As tuition costs continue to rise, streamlining education is becoming a more critical component. Offering college credits to students still in high school allows them to graduate more quickly and with reduced debt. Different from the traditional Advanced Placement programs, these are actual college classes that can be taken by high school students.

West Virginia State University offers several programs to give prospective students a head start: Early Enrollment, through which high school students can earn credits early; and the STEP to Success program, to expand the number of students pursuing degrees in STEM-related fields. Although not right for every student, this is a way for institutions to reach students earlier and help them achieve their education goals more quickly.

5. Enterprise partnerships

Partnering with business will become increasingly important for colleges and universities. Not only does this give institutions access to a motivated student body, but it also helps enterprise attract, and retain, a skilled workforce. Although Starbucks and Arizona State University have gotten a lot of press, they are not the only enterprise partnership in the game. In May 2015, Strayer Education announced the launch of Strayer@Work, which has partnered with Fortune 1000 companies to identify skills gaps and then deliver targeted training programs and customized college degrees. I will be watching with interest to see how this plays out in 2016.

6. Creating international pathways

Programs to bring international students into the United States to study have grown in popularity, with some now generating up to $1 billion in revenue. Through these programs, international students are able to come to the United States and gain valuable English language skills, as well as enjoy the cost benefit of reduced tuition for enrolling. Kaplan International English is one of the largest providers of this service, and my expectation is that this market will continue to grow. The United States still has one of the best reputations for higher education in the world, and there is room for growth in the international market.

7. Curated degrees

The average student attends three higher education institutions. Transferring those credits historically has been cumbersome, with multiple forms required and many credits not being accepted by different institutions. One of our best practices that we recommend to our partner institutions is to accept as many transfer credits as possible; some accept up to 90 credits, enabling transfer students to finish their degrees quickly.

Now, schools like King University have started evaluating alternative experience such as military service, which incoming students can exchange for college credits. To address the rising costs of education, providers like StraighterLine offer online courses that are guaranteed to transfer to its list of partner institutions, at a lower cost than traditional courses. As of today, this initiative has saved students nearly $100 million in tuition costs.

With curated degrees, students have the ability to package all their existing credits into a single, transferable unit to carry across their higher-ed career and collect them into a curated degree.

8. Digital transcripts

As non-traditional programs grow in popularity, the question of how to convey skills learned also grows. Alternative credentialing and digital transcripts offer a way for students and trainees to display their competencies outside of the traditional college degree. From building websites to project management, companies such as Degreed and Parchment are paving the way for students to show their achievements like never before.

9. Stackable certificates

Following the trend of providing new options and alternate pathways to students, stackable certificates, such as those offered by Walden University, allow students to collect professional certifications and credentials, to use as milestones along their larger educational path. This concept allows students who are on track to complete a degree to divide or adjust their education into specific areas of concentration. It also allows graduates to maintain appropriate qualifications, even if the job market shifts away from the need for their particular degree subject.

10. Reverse transfer

Reverse transfer allows students who have earned credit, but no degree, from a four-year institution the ability to transfer those credits to a community college and earn an associate degree. While this may seem counterintuitive, I see a few benefits to this trend.

First, this helps motivate students. Some degree is better than no degree, according to research, enabling students to improve their career and salary prospects. Second, reverse transfer can actually help motivate students to finish their bachelor’s degree. Once they see the benefits of an associate degree, and how close they are to a bachelor’s, earning that degree doesn’t seem so daunting. Finally, this can create a pool of loyal fans for institutions, and with word of mouth still a significant portion of how students choose their college, the power of a good reputation cannot be overstated.

Clearly, smoothing the path toward degree completion is a common thread. With 45 million students having some college credit but no degree, institutions must be considering how best to serve this population. As the economy continues to rebound, providing specific job skills is also becoming mission critical.

What are you doing to prepare for the future? How is your institution adapting?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: