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The 2020 American school year ended in June with students—and employers—looking ahead at an uncertain future and questioning whether the value of higher education is still worth the cost.  Technological solutions to the American higher education problem have never been more urgent. We asked the Xinova innovator network for perspective on Covid-19, innovation, and higher education. Innovator, Kaj Pedersen shared his insights and proposes his company’s solution.

 

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: COVID-19’s Impact on the World of Higher Education

by Kaj Pedersen, Xinova innovator

Personally, my first awareness of the pandemic’s impact on higher education came when our son called home and informed us that his college in Chicago was moving to an online experience in March. He had to come home and adapt to the college’s online program, interrupting his freshman experience away from home. Meanwhile, his school, like thousands of others, was pressed to redesign the college experience into an online curriculum, without sacrificing educational quality even as the pandemic robbed them of precious value of the campus experience. Against all odds, so far, we have been impressed with his college’s efforts.

Higher education, Covid-19, innovation

Photo by Callum T, Unsplash

However, this is not the case for many students and families, who now see firsthand the toll that the pandemic has had on the college experience. In many cases, they are left wondering how their investment will boost their odds of success after graduation. Many anxious students and parents are asking, now more than ever, “Are we getting what we paid for from a college degree?”

Long before the pandemic struck, it was clear that the path from graduation to career was rarely linear and often filled with uncertainty—never more truly than in today’s unprecedented unemployment and labor market disruption.

The pandemic has hastened the need for innovation within the higher education space, especially with the transparency COVID-19 has created in quantifying the value of education and its ability to tie back to economic opportunity for the learners.

Even before the current crisis, only one-third of students strongly agreed that they will graduate with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the job market and workplace. Only half believed their major would lead to a good job.  After recently graduating, forty percent were underemployed–numbers that will sharply increase with 30 million new jobless claims, rescinded job offers and rising closures, layoffs, and furloughs. 

Perhaps, this time, there is an opportunity to better serve the learner and help colleges—and their students—understand the return on their investment. Colleges have historically struggled to translate the value of their programs to the students, parents, and employers they serve.

That’s the central question for many innovators now working in higher education. I was attracted to my latest startup project with AstrumU™, partly because they have been looking to tackle this challenge since long before the pandemic struck.  The appeal laid with the company’s timeless mission to quantify the return on investment not just of a degree, but of its constituent courses and competencies, to create personalized pathways from education to employment. 

AstrumU™ has developed an artificial intelligence platform that allows institutions to accurately forecast the labor market value of educational experiences to equip students, faculty and advisors with information on how learning translates to marketable skills in the workforce.

Our thesis ties back to the classic adage: knowledge is power. We’re pioneering a new approach to AI that allows colleges to understand how their education offerings lead to predictable outcomes in the workforce. Our Data Science and Engineering teams accomplish this by integrating data from universities and from the enterprise employers that recruit their students, using artificial intelligence to analyze millions of data points to predict the labor market value of educational experiences, skills, and degrees. 

The result is sophisticated predictive models that enable students and families to make informed decisions with insight into the earnings potential, job title, and career outcomes they can expect from degrees, credentials, and courses. 

Institutions can develop a clear picture of the return on investment of the skills and competencies their students gain, not just at completion, but at every stop along the way. Employers, meanwhile, can hire talent with more certainty in their core skills. But students are the ultimate winners in this scenario: they know the degrees they have sacrificed time and money for will indeed credential them for relevant jobs.

It’s a period of enormous uncertainty, but also great dynamism for those focused on these “wicked problems” in the world of higher education. Entrepreneurs face an opportunity—and an imperative—to help education providers and students weather this storm.

The world has changed—that’s undeniable. But it need not spell calamity for colleges, who have especially much to offer and to gain if we together embrace human ingenuity in the face of the constraints presented to us. Our future is going to be reshaped around the changing behaviors of our customers, and we need to meet them at the intersection of need.

“They were the best of times and worst of times,” states the opening line of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities.  Back in school when we read Dickens, I never thought it would serve as a parable for a pandemic-stricken world. But then, that’s a value of education that is difficult to quantify. We see clearly now the imperative before us of preparing students for an increasingly challenging—and uncertain— world of work. And if we can help them measure the value of what they learn…well, the best of times may be back that much sooner.

*****

Gold: Seattle's Once and Future Element of Innovation | Kaj PedersenKaj Pedersen is CTO of AstrumU. A forward-thinking entrepreneur and executive, he has over 20 years experience in venture creation: FinTech, MedTech, EdTech, Search and Investment Management. 

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