With higher ed enrollment stagnating, or even declining since just after the prime lending financial crisis, the top question of the 2010s was: “How can my institution do better at attracting target students?” The silver bullet answer was: offer new programs—or offer them in new ways (e.g. part time) or new formats (e.g. online). Rather predictably, this resulted in program proliferation. Of course, many of these programs were well-contemplated and matched student demands, and a few dozen institutions rapidly gained market share. But these efforts didn't increase the total size of the enrollment pie. The necessary result was that average program size went down—in fact, two thirds of these of these programs still don’t graduate more than ten students1.

This situation benefited nobody: not students (who don’t get the degrees), not society (which is not gaining skilled graduates), and certainly not institutions (which spend limited resources to support these programs). In fact, it has exacerbated the problem and created excess capacity which could be costing higher ed as much as $50 billion per year2. That is more than the total Coronavirus Relief Funding colleges and universities are likely to receive. In response, perhaps 41 percent of institutions are paring down those programs offerings3.

So here we are again: a new crisis—a new silver bullet. This time, it’s lifelong learning, and it’s long overdue.

Our educational institutions—especially public institutions—have both an imperative and a right to be the go-to providers of learning from “K to Gray”. A college degree conferred before age 25 no longer suffices as education for life. The market reacted to this reality: over 43 percent of college degree holders have an alternative credential4 and 80 percent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) students have at least a bachelor’s degree5. Non-traditional students also need greater accessibility to the skills and credentials that will advance their careers.

But history repeats itself. It took hundreds of thousands of online degrees to be conferred by for-profits before the non-profit sector started to build online programs. Now, when institutions embrace lifelong learning en-masse, they will find a similarly crowded field. Companies, long underserved by education, have invested extensively in in-house training—recently exemplified by the buzz around Google “disrupting the college degree”6. Unaccredited independent boot-camps have become a significant market segment. And businesses like Guild Education have sprung up to act as brokers between the now-eager education sector and employers that need them.

So—how can higher education avoid the mistakes of the past and lead with impact to succeed in embracing and enabling lifelong learning?

  • Get the basics right: If traditional students have always been your core, do not forsake them. Applications are up 10 percent on average7. If your institution’s applications are down 20%, that points to a potential challenge with enrollment management that needs to be addressed before embarking on a more complex life-long learning initiative.
  • Amplify your brand: There is still no credible replacement for the credentialing power of higher education. The brands are particularly powerful in geographies with large concentrations of alumni, but marketing needs to be a natural extension of the existing brand. If the program and communication are on point, the market will respond.
  • No more guessing labor market needs: Universities need a handle on what their local job market needs are, what skills make graduates career-ready, and should be confident that their academic programs meet these needs effectively. To drive labor market insight, Accenture has invested in Skyhive, a start-up that uses AI and quantum labor analysis to facilitate labor market transformation, reskilling, and learning.
  • Simplified personalization: Life-long learners have more varied journeys and motivations and are likely to be juggling multiple factors that make learning challenging, from family obligations to work stress. The institution needs to cater to a personalized learning journey—without the options overwhelming the learner. Personalizing effectively means having the right customer data to know your learner.
  • Embrace aggregation: Higher education doesn’t need another decade of excess capacity building from a fragmented university market intent on building all its own programs from scratch. Marketplaces and brokers have sprung up to clear the market between employer/student need and university supply. Content aggregators exist precisely to prevent thousands of substantively similar instances of “Introduction to Data Science”.

I am excited about higher ed’s embrace of lifelong learning. If institutions remain true to their strengths, focus on the market needs, and work together, the nucleus of lifelong learning just might return back to the sector.

Find out more on our Higher Education page or reach out to me via LinkedIn to continue the conversation.

[1] Bad Bets: The High Cost of Failing Programs, Burning Glass; accessed January 29, 2021.

[2] Higher Education’s $50 billion problem, Lumina Foundation; accessed January 29, 2021.

[3] Presidents’ Growing Worry?  Perceived Value of College; accessed January 29, 2021.

[4] Stephanie Ewert and Robert Kominski; 2014; Measuring Alternative Educational Credentials: 2012; accessed January 29, 2021.

[5] Chen Zhenghao, Brandon Alcorn, Gayle Christensen, Nicholas Eriksson, Daphne Koller, and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, 2015; Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why; accessed January 29, 2021.

[6] Justin Bariso; 2020; Google's Plan to Disrupt the College Degree Is Absolute Genius; accessed January 29, 2021.

[7] ‘Alarm Bells’ on First-Generation, Low-Income Applicants, Inside Higher Ed; accessed January 29, 2021.


Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

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