Let’s Have Companies and Communities Drive the Change in Higher Education for Adult Learners

If you have read much about higher education for adults, you will have seen many authors lamenting the fact that colleges and universities (CaU’s) are slow (very slow) to change.

So, let’s have companies and communities drive the change in higher education for the adult learner.

There are 3 reasons why companies and communities should drive learning for their employees (adult learners).

  1.  Companies and communities know what they need – and they typically have a large pool of potential students. 
    I am quite certain that the traditional undergraduate and graduate college degrees will have volume and value in the coming years.  However, companies and communities are better positioned to work with CaU’s to suggest formal learning content.  The higher education literature regularly suggests certificate programs will offer more value to companies and communities in the coming years.I encourage companies and communities to create 3-6 course clusters and offer internal certificates for employees to use for better job performance and to prepare for new career opportunities.Properly constructed, certificate programs can build toward a degree.  For adult learners, progress can be measured in months not years.  Who ever said that 120 college credits is a magic number that demonstrates a new level of learning.It can take 8 or more years for adults to earn that many credits.  In my experience, without strong support from their employer, the attrition rates are very high for adult learners who have to wait that long.  Let’s look at ‘serial certificates’ that provide both job-relevant learning to adults and moves them toward a degree.As employees move through the certificates (groups of college courses), make sure there is some form of recognition.  Then — all of a sudden, we are looking at measurable progress in months – not 80% of a decade.
  2. An increasing number of colleges and universities are willing to innovate to get new sources of tuition income.Both public and private CaU’s are looking for supplemental income.  Degree and certificate programs that come from new sources are highly valued.  Even those CaU’s that are still too traditional for the 21st century higher education market, are slowly recognizing and adapting to the changing adult-learner market.When developing these learning programs, make sure to be innovative on the pricing structure.  I was successful in negotiating flat-rate tuition costs per class.  The agreements also specified minimum and maximum enrollments.  If structured properly, companies and communities are able to have lower tuition costs per student, while CaU’s are guaranteed a flat revenue amount.
  3. Companies and community organizations can come together to let multiple colleges and universities bid on their business.  We can call it the ‘Reverse-Priceline Model’Do you really think you can differentiate a quality education?  Why not operate under the premise that all formal college learning is a commodity.  If one college or university vendor wants to charge a higher rate, ask them to demonstrate their thought process.  If it is based on quality, ask them to demonstrate the incremental difference in quality from one vendor to the next.One consideration to add to your negotiating strategy:  ask for faculty used to teach your employees or community members be in the top 25% of that institutions faculty – adjunct or full-time.

The alternative to what I have suggested above is to let your employees and members of your community choose a college or university on their own.  That option effectively limits your organization’s ability to negotiate both price and quality.

Next:  Dynamic Tuition Pricing Models for Adult College Students


The Current Tuition Reimbursement System in Companies is Ineffective and Inefficient

It is time to look at the traditional employee benefit of tuition reimbursement (tuition assistance).  The current model is ineffective and inefficient.

Tuition reimbursement programs came into use in the middle part of the 20th century and were based on the success of the post WWII GI Bill. In the decades that followed, it became viewed as a standard employee benefit, much like healthcare.  Historically, tuition reimbursement has been used as a competitive benefit.

I would argue that those days are gone and the time has come to move this scattershot approach to formal learning for the employees of companies to the same secondary status that printed textbooks are becoming.

Tuition reimbursement is indeed analogous to the scattered approach of a shotgun shell.  In its current format, it does not provide companies with the directed learning focus that can most effectively move organizations forward.  The collective mind set seems to be that if we throw enough tuition reimbursement dollars out there – our employees will stay and the business will grow because of it.

There are 4 main reasons why the current model of tuition reimbursement is ineffective and inefficient.

  1. Companies usually pay list price for their employee’s tuition costs; thus, a company cannot leverage its buying power to control tuition costs.
  2. Employees are in open enrollment classes in a variety of colleges and universities, making a culture of learning much more difficult to develop with the a la cart consumption of  courses and degrees from a pot pouri of colleges and universities.
  3. The challenges of managing the tuition reimbursement program are cumbersome.  This includes the application process, tuition cost allocating, and collections from non-compliant employees.
  4. Companies cannot reasonably expect to control the quality of their employees’ courses and degrees.  The quality of the content and the quality of the instructor are inconsistent. Today’s adjunct-heavy faculty staffing model by many colleges and universities can increase the risk of lower quality instruction on a company’s tuition reimbursement dollar.

While most companies have general guidelines for the types of classes and degrees covered, programs are generally administered from a transactional, not a strategic, perspective. “We were startled to find that such huge sums of money are allocated to corporate benefits with little or no measurement of impact or effectiveness,” said Josh Bersin, president, Bersin & Associates. “While the intangible, personal value of higher education is clearly very high, we see a tremendous opportunity for companies to more effectively align and manage these dollars toward strategic talent needs.”

“Most tuition assistance programs are institutional and considered to be a standard employee benefit,” said Chris Howard, principal analyst at Bersin & Associates. “Consequently, most companies do not capitalize on the potential to use these dollars to support specific talent management objectives. In fact, 27% of the companies we surveyed do not measure program effectiveness in any way.”

Here is a summary of the 2009 Bersin report on tuition assistance programs.

While many of the respondents to a 2008 SHRM study had access to tuition reimbursement benefits, they were uncertain about how their corporate culture viewed continued learning.  Tuition reimbursement, in its traditional form, has created an inconsistent organizational culture of learning.  Companies would be better off determining their learning needs and engaging their employees directly – not through the buckshot approach of tuition reimbursement.

In most organizations, a small set of employees use their tuition reimbursement benefit to either subsidize or completely pay for their education.  SHRM confirms that surprisingly few employees are taking advantage of tuition reimbursement programs offered by their employers.  They go on to suggest that the fast-paced, over-stressed culture of modern work might contribute to that.

Maybe.  I would suggest that tuition reimbursement – in many organizations – is so scattered that many employees don’t think about it.  After the initial, new employee orientation, tuition reimbursement is rarely marketed.  In my experience, the initiative of single employees is the only marketing of formal learning in organizations.  The benefit is used neither strategically nor tactically.

You will find few academic studies have looked at tuition reimbursement programs. Anecdotally, the primary reasons given by firms as to why they offer tuition reimbursement programs are recruitment and retention.  However, if most organizations offer tuition reimbursement benefits, it is unlikely that there is any sustainable competitive advantage.

From an individual employee’s perspective, there is a tax-advantage value for tuition reimbursement programs.   Up to a cash value of about $5,250, there are usually no taxes against an employee’s income.  Effectively, $5,000-plus dollars of untaxed income.

Finally, it would be wrong to suggest that the current tuition reimbursement model is wrong for everyone.  That is clearly not the case.  Many have used the current model to improve their career opportunities.  However, I offer readers that the exclusive use of the historical model inhibits companies from maximizing the benefit of tuition dollars.

What Could Supplement or Replace Tuition Reimbursement?

Groups of employees in an organization studying the same content would allow both for more controlled learning and better tuition cost control.

What could a new tuition reimbursement model look like for companies in the United States?

  1. Companies start to identify formal learning certificates, degree-building, and degree programs from local colleges and universities that will be in line with the company’s learning needs.
  2. Classrooms move from the university to the company location.
  3. Companies would re-allocate a percentage of tuition dollars toward budgeted, learning objectives focused on company needs.
  4. Companies would negotiate with local colleges and universities for scalable, tuition pricing for employee learning cohorts.
  5. Companies would negotiate for increased control of instructor quality and consistency in the formal learning process.
  6. Employees in these cohorts would learn with their workplace colleagues — creating new skills for a company while creating and growing a learning culture.
  7. Companies would internally market the learning programs that would provide the biggest return on invested tuition dollars.
  8. Local colleges and universities would create incremental revenue sources with limited direct costs.

I will expand on the new model in future blogs.

Here is a list of companies that provide tuition reimbursement to their employees.

Check out my professional profile and connect with me on LinkedIn. 

 Details on implementing a new tuition reimbursement model at collegecohorts.com

Rapid Skill-Building Cohorts: The ‘Mini’ Movement

One of the cohort programs I helped develop and grow was something called a ‘Mini-MBA’.   In its essence, it was a 16-week program that provide MBA-type content to our supervisory and junior management employees  Sixteen different instructors covered 16 different topics.  There were no tests and very little homework.  The employees were able to study higher-level business content, quickly – and with their colleagues.  In some cases, the Mini-MBA served as a precursor to a full MBA or other business degree.  In many cases, the program offered just enough business acumen to make the employees more valuable to the organization.

Here is the business case.

Executive summary:

This organization wanted to provide a quick and concise program that provided current business skills and perspectives to those in its organization that did not really know if they wanted to pursue formal business courses at a college or university.  A program was developed and delivered that employees completed in 13-16, weekly, 3-hour classroom sessions.  The university partner provided a certificate of completion to successful participants.

Describe the problem:  There was a large employee population that needed a more thorough understanding of both general and industry-specific business skills.  Many had extensive technical or operational skills, but limited exposure the business or management content.  The company wanted to limit its exposure to long-term tuition costs, plus they wanted some customization of the content for their industry.

The non-credit courses were outside of the organization’s tuition reimbursement policies, and had to be paid for from budgeted learning accounts in each department or business unit.

Corporate and business strategy:  Find an academic partner that would be able and willing to provide custom business content in a non-credit setting.   Negotiate a flat-rate price with minimum and maximum employee participation numbers.

Details on the implemented solution: A local university was identified that had previously offered something called a ‘mini-MBA’.  The program ran once a week for 16 consecutive weeks.  The company worked with the university to customize some of the content for its industry and negotiated a flat rate for the set of courses that made up the ‘mini-MBA’ program.

Initial marketing for the program was done based on a manager’s recommendation of an employee’s potential.  After a few cycles of the program, the recommendation part was eliminated – and employees were able to make direct application to the program.

Since this was a non-credit program, it was marketed to employees as a program that had no tests and no homework.  For the most part, all of the content and learning was presented during the 3-hour weekly class sessions.

Major Problems:  Because it was not-for-credit, the program was difficult to market to internal employees.  Registration was typically slow – yet almost all classes were offered regularly.  The lack of tuition reimbursement funds for the program made many managers hesitant to support their employee’s interest in the program.

Outcome: Enrollment remained solid, but inconsistent.  Initially, successfully offered twice per year, employee demand diminished and the offerings became annual.  After about 8 years, the ‘mini’ concept was expanded to more industry-specific programs for employees.

Goals of academic partnerships.

By definition, academic partnerships bring companies or communities together to form groups of learners (cohorts).
When properly developed, academic partnerships have these goals:
  • Provide learning opportunities for all employees consistent with the organization’s and employees’ needs.
  • Reduce tuition costs through flat-rate pricing model
  • Provide focused, formal learning for participants
  • Create certificate and degree learning cohorts that leverage unit volume for lower tuition costs
  • Improve organizational relationships through the use of certificate and degree programs
  • Leverage technology to combine classroom sessions for the benefit of organization’s relationships
  • Leverage technology to lower costs of learning
  • Develop new organizational skills to create, maintain or catch up to sustainable competitive advantages
  • Develop internal systems to create specific professionals for future workplace shortages.

Each of these goals focus on bringing adult learners together in a non-traditional higher education learning model.  Instead of a company or community sending individual learners to a disparate set of colleges and universities, this model brings learners together under one, manageable umbrella.  Ideally, the host company or community provides the learning facility, marketing, and on-site support.  In exchange, the college or university generates incremental revenue with a lower cost base – that is then shared with the host company or community.

The business model is one that provides companies with a focused learning group and the college or university with new students.

Somewhere, somebody calls that ‘win-win’.

Why is All Funding for Education Focused on Individuals ?

I just did another ubiquitous Google search using the terms:  innovative adult education funding.

All I saw in the first many pages was references to grants for a plethora of programs.  None of the innovations included bringing cohorts of adult learners together.

From a business perspective, there is great value in having your employees learn together.  Not only do they learn the content, they have a chance to build learning relationships during the classroom sessions.  Companies do it all of the time with internal training programs.

Let’s think about providing a consistent learning methodology for your employees through college courses.  Don’t get me wrong; I am saying ‘college courses’ for a reason.  However, there is no need for employers – or employees – to invest in degrees all of the time.

Look at single courses that meet  the needs of your business, or work with a local college our university to spec out a set of courses that your organization needs to grow and move forward.  Make those courses into a company-specific certificate.  Acknowledge the learners when they complete the set of courses.  If a degree focus is important, work with your higher education provider to make your certificate programs build toward a degree from the provider.

Learning in the 21st  century still needs to have a significant degree completion component.  It simply does not have to be to sole focus on company-based learning.

Learning makes us think about the way we do things.

I have often struggled with being able to identify the value of classes like history, theology, – science classes like anatomy and physiology and for the non-math person — everything math.

It wasn’t until I was well into middle age and had bee around many adult learners that I was able to see the value.

Math helps us learn how to think logically

Science classes give us a chance to see how and why things work.

History shows us what others have done impacts what we may do.

There are other examples.  Art shows us the depth of physical creativity, music lets us see the passion of life, and philosophy offers a true sense of the ‘why’ in our lives.

In my world, learning focuses on adults.  And learning for adults gives each one a chance to think about the way they do things.

There is no greater result from learning.

What is an academic partnership?

When I first started the journey into developing academic partnerships for the company I worked for in 2004, there was one, 16-week certificate program available from a local, public university.   When I finished my time at the employer, there are 7 university partners involved in almost 20 degree, degree-building, and certificate programs.

By my definition, an academic partnership is a 1:1 relationship between your organization and a university.  Academic partnerships provide targeted degree, degree-building, and certificate programs exclusively to your employees or members at a location convenient to them.  In many cases, that location is your business’ location.  Professors are assigned to your location and deliver the same courses that are delivered on the university campus.

Academic partnerships can be designed for companies, communities, or consortiums of groups or individuals.