I am convinced, and have been for some time, that the future of higher education is work-and-learn. Students will work because they want to, gaining experience and work habits that will make them more competitive, or because they need to, because they have families to raise and bills to pay. And many of these students, I hope, will take advantage of the growing number of education benefit programs that are emerging among large companies. I just spent an exceptional couple days in Denver at the Guild Opportunity Summit, and my overwhelming sense is optimism. I’m not giddy with it — I am nothing if not a catastrophist. But there was enough good will and authenticity in the room to make me hopeful that corporate America is stepping up to the plate, and that they won’t back down at a wild pitch.
The entire agenda was impressive, but it was the learner session, which featured frontline employees from WM, Discover Financial, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and UCHealth, that I found the most insightful. Facilitated by Terrence Cummings, senior vice president of student services and strategy at Guild, the panel spoke to their firsthand experiences of how working learners are experiencing these programs. Representing diverse industries, the panelists were studying toward careers within their companies, majoring in business and tech and phlebotomy. Several of the panelists struggled a bit before finding their paths. Some had started college but stopped out, some needed time to determine exactly what they wanted to study, others recognized that they needed education to do the kind of work they wanted to do. All spoke to the barriers, financial and otherwise, that made it near impossible for them to find their way to and through college on their own. Also without exception, these working learners spoke to several key things employers need to hear as they’re considering developing or expanding tuition benefits programs:
- Education begets confidence. All the panelists mentioned that they felt more secure in their own abilities and brought that confidence back into their work roles.
- Investing in employees’ education is a clear sign of care, with panelists commenting, “They value me as a person.” I want to throw a chair and hug these amazing people all at once. Of course employers should value employees as people, because that’s what they are. How did we reach a moment where human kindness and compassion have become novel?
- Postsecondary education in this country has done a pretty poor job overall in showing how it supports and enables working adults and those from underestimated backgrounds. A constant refrain was, “I didn’t think it was possible for someone like me…” There are millions of working adults enrolled in college right now, but there are clear signals sent by media, policymakers, and employers that college is reserved only for certain folks. I am heartened to see so many companies actively working against that message.
The panelists also agreed that, by investing in their education, their employers had created an undeniable connection with the company that ultimately would lead to greater retention, and that employees saw how education would lead to better jobs within the companies. They also didn’t talk only about themselves. Something I think higher education, and those of us who work around higher ed, forget is that for many people, education is something that is done for a family and for a community, not for personal gain. There is an ongoing debate in political circles about whether education is a public good. For adult working learners, it is absolutely a public good — something that will enable them to, in the words of Nicholas Marshall from WM, “take better care of the people who need me.”
I have said for a long time that investing in talent pays off, but friends, I felt it today, and it felt really good. Employers will see returns from investing in employees’ education in the form of reduced attrition, increased promotions, improved engagement, and more robust and diverse talent pipelines. We know that is true. I am now very hopeful that more employers are beginning to understand that investing in education is investing in a key that unlocks business challenges and helps us to create the kinds of workplaces and communities where everyone can thrive. And the results were clear — all of the panelists described feeling more confident in their futures and empowered in their roles. The panelist from UCHealth completed her phlebotomy credential and was promoted into her new role within a month.
There was one comment that sent shivers down my spine, which came during a discussion later in the day. It was a reflection from Professor Adam Grant, who, when asked about the future of credentials vs. skills, said (paraphrasing here) that he thought that credentials from colleges with clout — Ivies, flagships — would continue to be recognized, but that the value proposition for other institutions was not so clear. I personally don’t want to imagine a future where we don’t have educational institutions that are accessible to everyone, where our communities don’t have colleges and universities that create homegrown talent, where we have degrees for elites and skills for everyone else. I’m glad to see innovative institutions like Rio Salado College and Bellevue University that are specifically working for adult learners growing via these work-and-learn partnerships. But that growth is coming, or will soon, at the deficit of other institutions who aren’t able to compete or work at national scale. The time for higher education, especially community colleges and regional institutions, to focus specifically on adult working learners is now.
There is still a lot we need to learn and understand about employer-supported education programs — indeed, that is why I am obsessed with them. After this week, I am feeling more confident that we are on the right trajectory. We’re moving toward mutually beneficial programs that meet both business and individual goals, creating clearer pathways to better jobs and career advancement for frontline workers, sending clearer signals to higher education about what employers need and want, and creating a growing cohort of colleges and universities that are adult learning-worker friendly. It’s no small job! Kudos to the Guild team for building an exceptional, inspiring event!
Tweet A growing number of companies are starting education benefit programs. @HaleyGlover17 discusses the importance of investing in education, creating clearer pathways to career advancement for frontline workers.
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Tweet “Investing in education is investing in a key that unlocks business challenges and helps us to create the kinds of workplaces and communities where everyone can thrive.” @HaleyGlover17 @upskillamerica
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