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Op-ed

Online education: preparing the workforce of the future | COMMENTARY

If Maryland’s workforce is to respond to the ever-changing needs of business and industry, and if employers are to provide thriving-wage jobs that allow individuals to advance in chosen career paths, there is work to do.

Though Maryland slowly has been regaining jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, the unemployment rate for May (6.1%) is more than the national average (5.5%) and is still almost double what it was in January 2020 (3.3%), before the pandemic.

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Local industries, ranging from health care to information technology, all require a qualified and skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their service and product offerings. Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st century skills, businesses face the possibility of failing to remain competitive.

Reversing that trend will require expansive, collaborative efforts aimed at job training and workforce development. Innovative approaches to college education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. These approaches must focus on skill-based mastery, at an affordable cost, with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree.

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But there is an affordability gap to accessing that education. Last year, student submittals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dropped nationally by 6.7%. In Maryland, applications declined by 7.5%, and by 9.1% for students from Maryland’s Title I high schools. Those students are part of a critical segment of the state’s population — individuals who have not pursued higher education and the jobs that could result, largely because they didn’t apply for or receive financial aid.

Maryland’s outstanding colleges and universities continue to provide life-changing education for many, making a positive difference for individuals, families and communities. Even as Maryland’s high school counselors and college admissions officers offer support to help students submit the FAFSA, innovative learning models that are complementary to the many excellent traditional higher education options in Maryland can fill existing gaps.

Online, competency-based education is a low-cost option available now for those who seek to earn a degree aimed at employment or career advancement. It is an approach that can make getting a degree or industry-relevant certification more attainable, especially for historically underrepresented communities — including first-generation college students, low-income populations, students of color, and working adults.

Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. Pioneered in 1997 by my institution, nonprofit and accredited Western Governors University (WGU), each student individually progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material. Every WGU student is assigned a mentor — a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study — who provides individualized support to keep students moving steadily toward their degree and career goals.

In each of WGU’s four colleges — business, health professions, information technology and teaching — competency-based degree programs align with workforce imperatives and are highly-adaptable, allowing education and industry partners to create and refine high-quality learning pathways. For many of the 1,800 Maryland-based WGU students and 3,000 alumni, this model is the only way they can achieve a college degree and continue to advance in their careers without interruption.

As Maryland’s economy moves forward dramatically changed by COVID-19, the academic needs of Maryland continue to evolve and change, as do regional workforce needs and the demand for specific skill sets. Higher education has a duty to help connect talent with professional opportunity, by offering a variety of ways to prepare Maryland’s workforce with the credentials that employers trust.

Rebecca L. Watts (rebecca.watts@wgu.edu) serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that currently serves more than 1,800 Maryland students and 3,000 alumni in the state.


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