Changing the demand curve for higher education
A conversation with Louis Soares (June 2, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“I was a lot more technology triumphalist when I was in the think tank world,” Louis Soares tells us by videoconference, standing in front of a colorful painting on the wall of his home dining room. When envisioning the future of education, “I thought ‘this is technology and it will change the world.’ Now I focus on institutional culture and think of learners first.” How are learners doing during the pandemic, we ask? “The demand for postsecondary education, from its most formal to less formal, has proven to be robust,” Louis answers, suggesting that both traditional and alternative programs will be important in the future. “There was a fall-off of [college] enrollment but you did see folks enroll in Coursera.” Reflecting on learners and learning overall, Louis reminds us that “shocks like this [pandemic] tend to change social norms.” With economic disruption, shifting student needs and evolving educational alternatives, Louis adds “It’s exciting to see what happens next.”
Louis Soares is the chief learning and innovation officer of the American Council on Education (ACE), after serving variously as ACE vice president for policy research, strategy, and advancement from 2013–18. An experienced policy analyst and recognized thought leader on emerging trends in higher education, Soares previously served as director of the postsecondary education program and fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP). There, he coauthored the influential “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education” (Center for American Progress, 2011) with Clay Christensen and others. His more recent publications at ACE explain adult student needs and the evolution of innovative education delivery models. Prior to CAP, he served as director of business/workforce development under Rhode Island Governor Donald L. Carcieri and as director of education partnerships for the Rhode Island Technology Council.
Louis centers our conversation around the question, “How will this pandemic change the demand curve for higher education?” Despite headlines to the contrary and enrollment drops, Louis explains, the real data shows broad public demand for higher education. Citing work by Sean Gallagher at Northeastern, Louis tells us that the demand for a Bachelor’s degree remains high: “it’s a healthy demand that’s not going away.” Drawing on studies by ACE and others, he also emphasizes that “community college scores well [with the public] because people think it meets their needs.” Importantly, the demand for both 2-year and 4-year programs encompasses broad general education and direct interest in career paths. For “adult learners pursuing a baccalaureate credential or AA,” Louis explains,“ interests in getting educated go beyond just the job.” Although many surveys present outcomes as a tradeoff, it seems learners want both: “Survey questions create this dichotomy for adult learners: … liberal arts or … a degree to earn more money. Outside of the world of research, these interests overlap a lot.”
For many, the basic educational needs are communication skills, quantitative reasoning, and a specialization toward employment . “As a society,” Louis tells us, “we are realizing that K-12 is no longer the appropriate threshold.” “If we want to rebuild the middle class,” he says, ”we need to build a system that makes it possible to demonstrate three skillsets: pass the AP test in English Language and Composition, pass the AP in Statistics, and have a bundle of technical skills, such as Biotech as an example.” For this profile, an appropriate “functional level of human capital may be 14 years, with a certificate or associate’s degree.” Traditional 2-year and 4-year programs provide good grounding in communication and quantitative skills, but are not always as successful in providing a direct path to employment; bootcamps and online alternatives often focus on employable skills. “If someone loses a job,” Louis remarks, they can “take a short course online because they can afford it.” In addition, he continues, the data suggests that alternative credentials work best for someone who is “between one year of schooling and an associates degree.”
Louis talks with us about the success of alternate credentials for jobs. Data collected during the pandemic shows that the “demand for learning for career appears high, particularly for alternative providers.” However, we do not have good data showing which alternative providers are effective. “If you look at a place like Coursera as an … example,” there is not “enough information to know if the learner’s choice of a platform is going to yield the outcomes they want.” The most promising programs appear to target “professions such as IT [that] are performance-based: where performance implies competence,” he says. A prospective employer can tell whether an applicant meets basic job requirements. In these areas, ”you will see changes because that’s where certificates can really make a difference.” Reflecting on the future beyond the pandemic, he asks “Will alternative, low-cost offerings be efficacious enough to sustain this demand? The jury is still out.”
A promising direction combines targeted credentials with traditional programs that provide a broad education. Louis mentions that some liberal arts colleges are hiring Burning Glass — a leader in job data — to find curriculum additions that would prepare students for jobs in specific markets. “We are seeing creation of stacks of credentials — the human capital stack. If someone is pursuing an English literature major in a community college, they might also want a certificate that shows they have IT skills. Or a mechanical engineering major might want a certificate in welding.” With all of the job changes created by the pandemic, this trend may continue in coming years. As a predictor of disruptive innovation based on educational technology, Louis reminds us that, “we were already on our way to taking classes online because there wasn’t enough physical space and it was slowing down your ability to complete.” However, the broader disruption of the pandemic might come from stacking traditional and alternative credentials, giving students the chance to combine learning for their lifetime with specialized credentials leading directly into promising jobs.