Enrolling More Working Adults in Short-Form Learning Programs

By Alex Cannon and Anna Jiang Edwards – Published January 2021 in Guild EducationSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

Guild Education, headquartered in Denver, looks like an intriguing business in the adult workforce/higher education arena, founded in 2015 by Rachel Carlson and Britt Stich. In its relatively short life, Guild has raised $225.5 million and is already valued at $1 billion. Guild has a long list of investors, including Salesforce Ventures and Workday Ventures. As noted on the Guild Education website, they “bring together leading Fortune 1000 employers and nonprofit universities to offer education to employees.”

As explained in an April 2020 Fast Company article, Guild partners with big businesses, such as Chipotle, Disney, Walmart, and Lowe’s, by helping them manage and provide tuition assistance and tuition reimbursement programs to their employees. These employees pursue credentials from a Guild higher ed network that includes University of Arizona, University of Denver, and, as recently counted on their website, six other higher ed non-profit institutions.  

Increased level of preference for non-degree programs
Here we synthesize a January 2021 Guild white paper, titled “Enrolling More Working Adults in Short-Form Learning Programs,” by Alex Cannon and Anna Jiang Edwards. As usual, we suggest you read the entire paper as this synthesis is a highly shortened version of the original in which we highlight what we believe are the most salient points for educators. 

The paper begins by pointing to an often-cited December 2020 Strada Education survey that concluded how, since the pandemic, 63% of adults prefer training and non-degree programs over traditional academic degrees. Additionally, a November 2020 Wall Street Journal article noted how enrollment in short-form learning courses rose by 70% over the past year.

The Guild paper featured information based on a survey they took of 1,655 students. For example, in a survey question that asked what best describes your future career plans, 38.61% replied they wanted to advance to another position with their current employer, 22.30% replied they wanted to change to an entirely different field with a different employer, 14.20% replied they wanted to stay in their current position with their current employer, and 13.78% did not have clear career plans at the time.

The Guild paper also listed the following statistics related to short-form learning providers (although the source for these particular statistics was not provided):

  • In 2019, about 13.5 K of programs were offered by MOOCs, about 12 K were offered by trade/skill professional associations, and about 120 were offered by bootcamps.
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year, all of the 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities combined to offer about 1 million sub-baccalaureate certificates, 49K post-baccalaureate certificates, and about 22K post-masters certificates. 

Uncertainty Reigns
While students show an increased interest to enroll in short-form learning opportunities, working adults are also uncertain about which short-form learning credentials to pursue. The Guild paper outlined three reasons for this, along with suggested solutions on how to solve such uncertainty, presented below, in brief:

  1. Short-form learning programs vary greatly in structure.  For instance, “stark differences in organizations can make options difficult to compare, and many industries lack searchable databases with aggregated information to help students with decision-making.”

Solutions:

  • Use existing terms and concepts that are well-understood.
  • Address lack of clarity by making clear connections to career paths.
  • Consider university/provider partnerships.
     
  1. Prospective working adult students face unique barriers to enrollment. For example, there’s uncertainty related to industry-aligned credential terms that range from “certificates” to “microlearning” to “stackable credentials” to “alternative digital credentials,” etc.

Solutions: 

  • Use a discovery-based process to understand needs and help map programs to jobs.
  • Build innovative programs that are closely connected to company needs and hiring practices.
  • Share student perspectives.
  • Provide segmented mentoring to support persistence.
  • Reduce risk with trials and creative finance options (e.g. Income Share Agreements).
     
  1. “The market is crowded and complex.” For example, “in addition to more standalone learning and training providers, more colleges and universities are offering short-form learning options, because they recognize that credentials or programs that can stack into credit toward a degree is an attractive option for students in need of greater flexibility.”

Solutions:   

  • Be consistent with brand and identity.
  • Build brand equity through associations and individual experts. 
  • Forge learning partnerships with world-class companies and brands people know.
  • Leverage an education benefits expert.

Overall, as stated at the beginning of the Guild paper, “institutions that understand where they fit within this growing yet fragmented landscape as well as why more working adults are opting for short-form options will be better positioned to compete in an increasingly competitive market.”