Education evolution | Insight Insider | insightonbusiness.com
Rethinking higher ed in a changing workforce landscape
For the majority of people in today’s workforce, their education had a predictable, linear structure: Attend high school, immediately enroll in college, choose a major, get a degree, and after one was “done with their education,” well, start looking for a job.
But in the last three decades, the price of college tuition has nearly quadrupled. There was a Great Recession and a devastating pandemic. The former led to a drop in birth rates that paved the way for what is known as the “enrollment cliff,” with the number of U.S. college students poised to steeply plummet in 2025. The latter caused undergraduate enrollment to drop 6.6% and community college enrollment to drop 13%, not to mention its dramatic impact on health, technology and attitudes toward work.
Higher education is at a clear crossroads. Population declines aside, more and more Americans are sitting out of college, questioning the value and fearing crushing debt. Meanwhile, the labor market thrives.
But education is still essential to career advancement, and the country’s college-educated workforce is drawing higher salaries than ever. Jess Lambrecht, executive officer for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Continuing Education and Community Engagement division, says she feels fortunate to have landed two years ago at UWGB, where under the leadership of Chancellor Michael Alexander she says the university is positioned as well as any in the country to adapt and thrive.
“Our chancellor is very intentionally focused on community relevancy and how as a visionary leader he can be more adaptable and nimble,” Lambrecht says. “Because that’s what will sustain education; that’s what will grow the institution.”
Right-sizing higher ed
Secondary education should never be confined to just two or four years, Lambrecht says.
“A degree should never be the stopping point of learning,” she says. “I think we have a long road to go, because the perception has been, ‘I have my degree and we should be good.’”
Today career changing is common, and the pace of technology is staggering. At UWGB, Lambrecht says her division is focused on serving the community with lifelong learning. And that doesn’t have to be a master’s degree or doctorate; it can be an 8-week non-credit leadership certificate.
The UWGB Division of Continuing Education and Community Engagement is focused on testing and implementing modalities of learning, Lambrecht says. Unlike the laborious process of creating and implementing, for example, a new bachelor’s program, “we can be a catalyst for innovation because we can try things to see if they work [before being] adopted more formally,” she says.
The division offers more than a dozen certificate programs and counting, including a forthcoming exceptional customer service program and advanced leadership certificate. Lambrecht says a “bite-sized” program offers myriad benefits to learners: It’s affordable. It promotes and supports upskilling and career changing. And it boosts confidence in the higher ed system, as well as the individual, who might think college isn’t for them.
Kathryn Rogalski, vice president of learning at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, says her institution, like UWGB, has been innovative in creating shorter programs that make educational attainment more accessible for those who might find the traditional college experience daunting.
“One of the things we’re doing at NWTC is building microcredentials or microlearning opportunities,” she says. “We heard from our industry partners that ‘yes, we need employees right now and we need help getting them upskilled once we’ve hired them.’ We’re trying to be the best partners we can to industry.”
Whether a given microcredential is for credit or is a non-credit “bridge” to credit, Rogalski says, it’s providing much-needed training and education when and where it is needed most. And at an institution where 30% of students are also parents, the more bite-sized programs are less likely to be “derailed by life events.” This was also the issue NWTC had in mind in 2021 when it replaced its traditional 15-week semester with two, 8-week sessions.
“This allows us to create those on and off ramps for students to make sure we can [improve] time to completion for students,” Rogalski says.
Learn and earn
There will always be a market for 18-year-olds coming straight to college and seeking the traditional campus life experience, Lambrecht says. But reaching community members where they are with diverse modalities of learning often means having a presence in their workplaces. She says her biggest challenge currently is marketing UWGB’s menu of learning options, and that includes encouraging employers to offer tuition benefits that are inclusive of non-credit opportunities. She says there are legal and tax barriers, but also a bias against non-credit programs to overcome.
Tuition reimbursement is not a new concept, but as the war for talent heats up it has extended beyond being mostly MBAs for executives and is now reaching more frontline workers. Companies are also adding other educational benefits like tuition assistance for employee families and student loan assistance programs.
Additionally, record numbers of employers are eliminating degree requirements for employment altogether. According to a 2023 survey by Intelligent.com, 53% of U.S. hiring managers said their company eliminated the requirement for a bachelor’s degree in some roles in the past year; 64% of those said the reason was to increase the number of applicants and 58% said it was to create a more diverse workforce.
The worse news for higher ed: Skepticism of higher education’s value is on the rise, and it has led to more apprenticeships and DIY training programs. More than three quarters of hiring managers surveyed by Intelligent.com said they believe experience is more important than education.
Lambrecht says she doesn’t feel threatened by companies eliminating degree requirements, but she does caution strongly against the notion that companies can themselves provide all the training and education their employees need to thrive. “We know from a pedagogy standpoint that learning from diverse perspectives only makes your company better,” she says.
Lambrecht says her advice today to a graduating high school senior would be to identify an employer of interest that’s going to help them navigate their education. On the flip side, her job is to demonstrate the relevancy and responsiveness of the programs her institution provides.
“Many professionals who are in management roles had a traditional experience themself,” Lambrecht says. “So they are surprised what we offer and what we do.”
Getting a jumpstart
When it comes to speeding up the education process, there’s nothing more efficient than graduating from high school with both a diploma and an associate degree. That’s what four Menominee Indian High School students did this spring thanks to NWTC’s 4×4 dual-credit program, which has existed for years but opened to juniors in the wake of the pandemic, allowing students to complete two-year degrees as high schoolers for the first time. Alamea Pyawasay, Ashlee Corn, Pearson Denny and Mariah Fish are all MIHS students who earned associate of arts degrees from NWTC last month.
These intensive dual enrollment programs are on the rise nationally, including in the New North region. The Lakeland University Concurrent Academic Success Program in the Sheboygan Area School District was launched last summer. They’re all aimed at meeting future workers where they are.
Pyawasay says she didn’t feel appropriately challenged in high school, so the 4×4 program gave her the rigor and focus she craved. A course in psychology also opened her eyes to a career and bachelor’s degree in the field, which she will pursue at UW-Madison starting in the fall.
“Being able to do these classes gave me something to look forward to and something to focus on. I had to change my priorities,” she says — but it was worth it in the end. On top of discovering her career passion, she saved time and money and feels more prepared for what to expect at UW.
Rogalski says it’s all by design.
“When we started dual credit, it was ‘let’s get students a chance to take a course,’ and now we’re really intentional about not just taking a course but taking a course that’s on a pathway for these students,” she says. “Many would start not even on the college track, and it’s by building that confidence that you’re giving the students the idea ‘you can be a college student.’”
Karin Smith, a dual enrollment consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, says the state offers a variety of dual enrollment opportunities, but the high-school based programs are the most successful because they provide a safe environment for young people to envision themselves as college students.
“It’s hard for kids to understand the value of education if they don’t know what they want to do with it. If you go to a four-year college without purpose, you drop out,” Smith says. “They still have to pay those loans back, and they don’t have any credentials. Research shows that participating in things like dual enrollment and other career exploration activities increases the chance that students will enroll in and persist in college.”
Smith says Wisconsin’s success in the dual enrollment space aligns with the state’s academic and career planning statute, which was passed by the legislature in 2017. It requires Wisconsin school districts to integrate college and career planning activities by at least sixth grade.
“[Career exploration] gives me a chance to try on a hat,” she says. “But if I’m going into a work-based learning experience or I pursue an industry-recognized certification or participate in dual enrollment, those are things where I’m not just trying a hat on. I’m putting on a whole outfit.”
Supportive at every step
Indeed, career services at all levels of Wisconsin education have taken a sharp turn away from “find us when you need us” toward building meaningful partnerships and wraparound services along the way. Rogalski says many NWTC programs today require students to meet with career services throughout their educational journeys, and Lambrecht says employers looking for referrals appreciate an integrated career services department that can advocate knowledgably for individuals.
In her 24-year higher education career, Rogalski says, the biggest change she has seen is the shift from expecting students to be “college ready” to colleges becoming “student ready.” The pandemic sped this up even more. And ultimately, she says, institutions have a responsibility to industry and to society to help students succeed.
“We still have a lot to learn,” Rogalski says. “We know to be flexible and meet students where they are and they can achieve in ways we didn’t think they could.”
“As an access institution, we’re going to continue to see more diverse learners, more diverse learning preferences, family dynamics, financial strain and mental health impacting learning,” she says. “I think we as an industry need to show a little more care and empathy.”