Solving the Wicked Problems

Last year, we shared the Wicked Problems that motivate our efforts to uncover and unlock solutions that will make higher education more accessible, effective, and impactful. This year and in the years to come, we will use this report to share what we learned in our efforts — what worked, what didn’t, and why. We hope these reports not only give our colleagues the chance to build off what we’ve learned but also open a dialogue on the issues and problems that continue to vex us as researchers, designers, investors, and education technologists. 

If 2023 showed us anything, it is that AI technologies are unfurling rapidly. Many in higher education were caught by surprise. We understand that we need to learn fast, and the only way to do that is to learn together. 

Table of Contents

WGU Labs by the Numbers: Worked with 17 higher education institutions, worked with 10 EdTech companies, 16 research engagements, $850 thousand invested in EdTech startups.
#1 Postsecondary Access Routes and entry points to postsecondary education unnecessarily limit access for individuals who do not match the historic student profile.

Update on this Problem

Despite calls for skills-based hiring and increasing interest in dropping degree requirements from job descriptions, the vast majority of high-quality, well-paying jobs still go to individuals with a college degree. And according to LinkedIn data, actual hires of workers without a degree is still far lower than the number of job postings not requiring a degree.

While we aspire toward a system with multiple pathways to good jobs, it’s clear that expanding access to postsecondary education should remain a priority, in addition to supporting alternative routes, to ensure everyone has the opportunity to pursue meaningful learning experiences that enrich them economically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially.

But students from under-resourced groups continue to face significantly more barriers accessing postsecondary education than their peers, which is why many of the projects we undertook in 2023 aimed to advance equity and student support.

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

Postsecondary Success Collective (PSC) Organizations

This year saw Labs complete an ambitious partnership with several PSC (previously ‘hybrid college’) organizations that offer place-based support for students pursuing an online degree, which have been proven to improve graduation rates, lower costs, and eliminate equity gaps. We learned that the barriers to higher education can be numerous for many individuals from under-resourced communities, and that a seemingly insignificant clerical issue — such as accessing old transcripts — can be an insurmountable hurdle for individuals who have the least experience with postsecondary education. Additional support provided by PSC organizations, such as one-on-one coaching or distribution of emergency funds, can ease these students’ concerns about their ability to succeed in or complete higher education programs. 

An important insight from this work is that these partnerships require careful articulation. The PSC organizations must be integrated enough into their partner higher education institution to have easy access to the data and resources the students they support need while simultaneously being independent enough to be agile and responsive to the unique challenges of their students. Finding the right balance can be tricky and requires a willingness to not only change long-standing policies and practices in the university but also iterate on solutions together.

Equity Audits

In 2023, WGU Labs conducted its third equity assessment of a university that focuses on post-traditional students. We have been honored to work with institutions that are willing to hold themselves accountable for creating equitable access to success, proactively seeking to understand how they might better serve diverse populations of students in a way that improves both access and student success. With the audits, institutions open their doors to our research team to conduct a sweeping analysis of secondary data to chart student success over the last decade, a deep assessment of the learner experience with student, faculty, and staff interviews, and an institutional survey of students and faculty. These data and analyses form the evidence foundation for understanding student success and struggle, and exploring and advancing solutions to improve success. 

Through our work, we’ve seen how threats to diversity, equity, and inclusion can be hidden in historical norms and well-intentioned actions and policies. Above all, we come away from these studies with a clearer understanding that creating institutions that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive is something every individual supporting students needs to live and breathe every day. DEI isn’t an initiative — it’s a way of operating. Though staff, faculty, and administrators express the core principles and vision of DEI as they work with students, their ability to do so depends critically on the institutional policies and structures that shape the work of staff, faculty, and students. Put bluntly, faculty and staff can’t provide the responsive engagement a truly inclusive institution needs if they don’t have compensated time in their schedules to work with students for as long as they need, or the flexibility to shift timelines and expectations to the inevitable disruptions parents, frontline workers, and caregivers face. Additionally, faculty and staff won’t provide inclusive and responsive care if their evaluations and accountability measures steer their attention to other outcomes.    

Nucleos: Empowering Learners Who Are Incarcerated 

In July 2023, eligibility for Pell grants to pursue higher education was restored for individuals who are incarcerated for the first time in 26 years. But providing these students access to education is a lengthy and complicated process. This year, we deepened our partnership with our Accelerator client Nucleos, whose platform provides secure access to educational programs with the unique needs of correctional facilities in mind. As Labs’ Executive Director Jason Levin expounds in a piece for the Hechinger Report, restoration of federal Pell grants for learners who are incarcerated is just a drop in the bucket. Many people who are incarcerated have limited access to the support and technology needed for learning. Bureaucratic complexities, such as accreditation requirements, securing funding, lockdowns that cut off access to learning technology, financial aid processes, and ensuring program quality, all add to the barriers these learners face — barriers we explored in a session for ASU+GSV.  

Predictions for 2024

AI as the New Digital Divide

What we’ve historically referred to as the Digital Divide has diminished in recent years. In our 2023 survey, the majority of students reported having access to wifi and devices and feel confident in their ability to use EdTech. But inequitable access to AI has emerged as the Digital Divide 2.0. We found that first-generation students were significantly less likely to have heard about and used ChatGPT compared to their continuing-generation peers. We predict that the need to directly instruct students in how to leverage ChatGPT will rapidly become necessary to ensure equitable access to the global economy.

Student Choice in Education Delivery

While most institutions of higher education (IHEs) have returned to in-person instruction after a period of remote learning necessitated by the pandemic, many IHEs now recognize the benefits of more flexible options. Hybrid models of educational delivery — a mix of in-person and online instruction — have taken off as a result. We believe that the next phase of instruction will empower students to choose the models that work best for them, rather than the institution choosing for them. We envision a future where students will be able to mix and match in-person and digital courses, as well as support services, depending on their unique preferences.

“AI and Large Language Models burst on to the scene and ignited a much-needed debate about the future of higher education. What will — and should — be the role of curriculum, faculty, and the institutions themselves? Will advances in AI bring greater access and equity or will it do the opposite? We are undoubtedly heading toward a future in which technology and virtual experiences are increasingly part of the learning experience, but we've clearly only scratched the surface of how higher education will change.” — Betheny Gross, Director of Research, WGU Lab
#2 Cost of Education Lack of transparency around postsecondary education costs and financial support impedes access and opportunity, especially for historically underserved student populations.

Update on this Problem

Americans are increasingly questioning the ROI of higher education: Fifty-six percent of respondents in a poll conducted by Wall Street Journal and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago said they believe earning a four-year degree is not worth the cost

Tuition isn’t the only cost of higher education. Adult learners, typically defined as students aged 25 or higher, now make up around 40% of undergraduate enrollment. Compared to 18–22 year-olds, adult learners have even more financial obligations. Many of these students are struggling to pay for transportation, rent, utilities, groceries, and childcare on top of tuition.

The end of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which provided emergency aid to students experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic, has reintroduced strain for many students. Adding fuel to the fire, millions of Americans are confused and frustrated with the student loan system in the wake of repayments resuming in October.

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

The State of Student Debt Repayment Report

In partnership with our Accelerator client Savi, a social impact technology startup, we conducted extensive research on the student loan debt crisis and uncovered that borrowers without a bachelor’s degree — those who have either an associate’s degree or some credit for a BA but did not complete their degree — are disproportionately impacted by the resumption of student debt collection and struggling to navigate repayment. In our survey, over 15% of borrowers with less than a bachelor’s degree reported not knowing any of their repayment options, compared to only 9% of borrowers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Additionally, one in four borrowers without a bachelor’s degree don’t know who their loan servicer is, compared to one in ten with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Impact of HEERF III Unrestricted Aid Support

We partnered with Western Governor University’s (WGU’s) financial aid department and institutional analytics team to analyze the impact of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) disbursements on student outcomes. Recipients reported primarily spending their aid on food, utility bills, and housing, respectively. Based on our findings — an 11.2% increase in graduation rates — we have proof that just-in-time, unrestricted funds can promote academic success, especially for working adult learners. We also found that students who received aid perceived greater institutional belonging and support — factors that affect students’ engagement and persistence in higher education.

Predictions for 2024

Increase in Wraparound Support

Our data, along with many other studies, show that helping students with non-education-related basic needs expenses like rent, food, and utilities is directly tied to student success, especially for learners furthest from opportunity. Similar to recent efforts to normalize mental health support in the workplace, we predict a push to destigmatize financial hardship, which will require creating stronger systems for providing wraparound support to students who need it. 

Modernization of the Financial Aid Model

The existing financial aid model was built for 18-25 year olds with the assumption that they receive support from their parents, learn exclusively in in-person environments, and don’t experience the day-to-day financial stress older adults face. In comparison, not much is known about the needs of adult online learners and their financial aid needs. Based on the growing desire to enroll and retain older learners, we predict that greater attention will be paid to modernizing our legacy financial aid model to support this group.

Push for Progress on College Affordability

Emergency aid is a band-aid — an all too often needed band-aid — in a higher education system that lacks reliable, high-quality, flexible, and affordable learning options that can accommodate learners who have to work to support themselves and often other dependents. We expect 2024 will see more colleges and education providers reimagining learner pathways to become more flexible and provide marketable skills — at a lower cost and in a shorter amount of time. 

“That so many students needed emergency aid and so many borrowers are struggling as student loan payments resume is more evidence that the cost of higher education is not only keeping people from starting and completing their degrees — but also weighing them down for years to come. This is nothing less than a broken system that will continue to harm individuals and limit our nation's potential until we are willing to look for radical solutions.” — Betheny Gross, Director of Research, WGU Labs
#3 Student Belonging The design of curriculum, instruction, support systems, and organization do not reflect known principles of social psychology and their impact on learning.

Update on this Problem

When individuals step into new spaces, they can subconsciously question their place within that environment. We know that belonging is important for students’ performance and persistence in higher education. And, as we discovered from our research with the University of Pittsburgh, an important component of belonging is the ability to access and easily navigate student support resources such as career services, tutoring, financial services, advising, and mental health support. But most students either aren’t leveraging existing support services at all, or find them lacking. Only about 60% of students know about the full range of mental health, financial aid, and career services offered at their institutions. 

At the same time, academic advisors and career services counselors have been under-resourced for years. In a recent survey, 47% of advisors and administrators said the top barrier to improving advising was high caseloads. One solution that has emerged from our research that may benefit both advisors and students is additional digital access — for first-generation students in particular, this mode of utilizing student support services is preferred. 

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

College Innovation Network (CIN)

Students experience belonging uncertainty in different forms in different learning contexts. Working with a broad and diverse set of schools from across the nation, research from the College Innovation Network (CIN) explores the baseline, correlates, and implications of belonging among students, while also offering recommendations for measurement, application, and translation into online student learning experiences. As students communicate a desire for increasingly flexible and dispersed education options, we’ve learned that the need to boost belonging, create connections, and foster engagement is greater than ever. Our findings underscore that true educational success hinges on the creation of engaged and inclusive learning environments. 

NavigateU: Customized Student Support Navigation

We partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to develop NavigateU, a platform that offers customized support service recommendations to students. Our work revealed that during specific and urgent points of need, students can often feel overwhelmed, defeated, and stigmatized when searching their institutions’ websites for resources (e.g, mental health services or financial aid assistance). And this can lead them to feel like college isn’t for them or that they otherwise don’t belong because they were the “only ones” who needed specific support services. ‍

Protopia: Student-Alumni Mentorship

The WGU Labs team studied the impact of Protopia, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool which builds connections between students and alumni. We found that with a little support, alumni are ready and willing to connect with students from their alma mater. We learned that alumni are an ideal secondary tie for students as they already have some life experience in common: attending the same university or college. More than half of the Protopia users we interviewed indicated they were motivated to use Protopia because they would be connected to alumni who they believed would be more likely to respond to their questions than strangers on platforms such as LinkedIn.

Predictions for 2024

Innovation in Student Support Services

Students are largely not using the resources available to them but online access can help, according to data from our 2023 Student EdTech Survey. Institutions should continue to offer resources in a variety of modalities so that students are able to access them in ways that fit their needs. However, low overall awareness of available support indicates that a more robust modernization of these services is needed than simply putting them online. We expect to see a rise in more innovative solutions like virtual communities, social media apps, and peer-to-peer tools. We also believe that by automating some of the rote aspects of advisors’ roles, their time will be freed up to focus on providing more support where it matters most. 

Greater Emphasis on Institutional Belonging

More and more students are prioritizing the flexibility and convenience of online learning. But we don’t know much about how students experience belonging in online settings. Most of the existing data on belonging assumes students are attending college in person. We expect the study of how — and why — this experience is different will become ripe for exploration in the coming years as more instruction shifts to online and hybrid models. We hypothesize that fostering a sense of institutional belonging, rather than peer belonging, may have a greater impact in online settings. 

“Belonging isn’t just about fitting in. It’s a foundational necessity, underpinning our aspirations for supporting student learning, development, and growth.” — Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovation
#4 Tech-Enabled Learning Technology-enabled learning models have not fully harnessed what is known about the science of learning.

Update on this Problem

At WGU Labs, we’ve been tracking student and faculty perspectives on the transition to an increasingly tech-enabled higher education system for the last three years, and one message has been clear and consistent: Most expect higher education to be more online and tech-enabled in the future.

But we cannot serve learners effectively unless certain critical conditions are met: digital access, digital self-efficacy, positive sentiment, high-quality instruction, wraparound support, and equitable access. In recent years, we’ve made progress on some of these levers, such as improved access to hardware and wifi, as well as the confidence to use digital tools. But the levers around ensuring equitable access to new technologies and providing effective tech-enabled instruction and support services still need work.

Additionally, positive sentiment — the attitudes and motivation needed to successfully engage with tech-enabled learning — is waning for both students and faculty as tech fatigue grows. 

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

CIN EdTech Survey Series

Every year, the College Innovation Network (CIN) at WGU Labs administers its EdTech Survey to generate valuable insights that help institutions understand how faculty, administrators, and students experience EdTech. This year’s data revealed a growing paradox when it comes to tech-enabled learning. Students and faculty are mostly excited about a future of learning that is more tech enabled. But at the same time, both students and faculty are experiencing tech fatigue and digital burnout. 

We also honed in on the first-generation student experience in particular. We found that these students are particularly excited about online learning, making it clear that a higher education system that is inclusive of first-generation students has to include online options. But our data also revealed that first-generation students were less likely than their peers to know about and have used ChatGPT to help with coursework. Addressing these inequities will be critical to ensure that underserved learners can benefit from new technology to the same extent as their peers. 

Flourish Labs: Peer Mental Health Support

Flourish Labs, a platform that trains young adults to provide mental health support to their peers, partnered with WGU Labs to modernize and scale its peer support training while also creating a more engaging experience for busy college students. To be certified as a peer supporter, most states require a minimum of 40 hours of instruction, and most training programs are conducted in face-to-face settings. Given the high turnover rate of peer supporters, plus the increasingly hybrid nature of postsecondary education, this model is both challenging and unsustainable. We realized that competency-based education (CBE) could be used to both ensure the training we developed met accreditation needs and provide a flexible digital learning experience aligned with the needs of modern college students. 

Project-Based Learning with Headlamp

Soft skills, the attributes that enable people to interact with others effectively, are critical to succeeding in the workplace. But more is needed to understand how to help learners develop needed soft skills, particularly in online learning environments. Near the beginning of 2023, Instructure launched Headlamp, a skill-based learning platform designed to provide learners outside of traditional learning pathways with opportunities to develop in-demand, industry-recognized skills and competencies. Recognizing the need for learners to upskill to be successful in online, self-directed learning environments, the Headlamp team contracted WGU Labs to develop a series of skill-development experiences — Adaptive Resilience, the Learning Mindset, and Giving and Receiving Wise Feedback — focused on cultivating and enhancing impactful psychological mindsets and behavioral practices. 

Predictions for 2024

AI That Moves Beyond the Hype

2023 was the year of the AI bandwagon. This year, we expect to see a shift toward solutions that center the learner and make concerted efforts to reduce biases and inequities. The solutions that will stand out in 2024 must solve real problems and incorporate user-centered design — less frills and more utility. We anticipate that learner-centered AI solutions will play a pivotal role in democratizing education.

Prioritization of Interoperability Across EdTech

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a proliferation of new learning technologies. The focus in the year ahead will be on culling low-quality and band-aid solutions and integrating the ones that work. Data from our first CIN EdTech Admin Survey, which will be published in early 2024, revealed that administrators’ No. 1 priority when choosing new EdTech is integration with the LMS. We expect the EdTech solutions that don’t meet the accessibility and interoperability needs of institutions will end up on the cutting room floor.

“With so many new technological tools, resource-strapped administrators are looking for solutions that have some evidence of working well, and that can work well with other existing enterprise technologies.” - Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovation.
#5 Diverse Learning Paths Diversity of instruction and learning pathways do not reflect the diversity of learners.

Update on this Problem

Competency-based education (CBE) leverages user-centered design to inform skills-based assessments and learning activities, in turn making the learning experience more accessible, relevant, and transparent. As we predicted last year, 2023 saw more institutions embrace competency-based education (CBE). California community colleges, for example, plan to restructure how they measure learning based on a similar shift to CBE across a technical college in Wisconsin.

Similarly, after more than 100 years, the Carnegie Foundation now intends to change the currency of learning from “seat time” to “skills” in recognition that a time-based standard is no longer a good measure of academic progress.   

This year, we identified better support and wayfinding for online students as an emerging need. Adult learners, typically defined as students aged 25 or higher, make up around 40% of undergraduate enrollment. At WGU, they make up 83% of our student base. We have discovered that adult learners, who are often more time-bound than traditional learners, have different requirements as they relate to navigating the educational experience, from choosing a program to progressing through courses.

At the same time, remote students want access to the same services and support their on-campus peers get, such as advising, tutoring, IT support, and mental health resources. But finding and leveraging these resources online — if they even exist online — is challenging.

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

CBE Transformation Services

WGU Labs worked with 10 institutions in 2023 to help them transform their traditional instructional models to CBE. Although we began by assisting nursing programs in their accreditor-required transition to CBE, we've seen a rise in other types of programs seeking to convert to a CBE model including electrician, HVAC, computer technician, information technology, cybersecurity, and early childhood development programs. While shifting to a CBE model is broadly supported as an opportunity to improve student outcomes and align with local workforce needs, we've found that faculty often need comprehensive support in shifting the focus of their courses to a model centered on competencies — something we facilitate through custom workshops on backward design and competency-based teaching strategies. We've also seen an increase in the number of institutions seeking strategic consulting to help tailor their CBE initiatives to institutional goals, enhance student outcomes, and navigate regulatory considerations.

Putting Microcredentials on the Map 

As interest and funding increase, more postsecondary institutions, as well as companies seeking to fill the skills gap, are making investments to offer microcredential options. The WGU Labs team had a busy year supporting several Accelerator clients, including CareerDash, and FranklinCovey, in expanding their microcredential programs. Our work together has highlighted the efficacy of microcredentials in supporting lifelong learning, particularly for individuals who already have a degree but need additional certifications to advance their careers. 

Predictions for 2024

Value of Qualitative Data

At WGU Labs, we’re excited about AI (though we have our reservations when it comes to equity) and the potential to leverage large data sets to improve outcomes for learners. But we also believe that without context, numbers can yield inaccurate assumptions and unintentional bias. That’s why we think 2024 will see a renewed focus on qualitative data — user interviews, co-design sessions, and open-ended surveys — to provide a more balanced, holistic perspective to all the quantitative data we now have at our fingertips.  

Shift From Macro to Micro Focus on Skills

While conversations around skills taxonomies, digital wallets, and microcredentials have ramped up dramatically in the education and workforce sectors, employer adoption continues to lag, presenting an enormous barrier for opportunity seekers. Lagging adoption isn’t surprising considering we're asking employers to adopt a much more complicated hiring system that will take time to generate benefits. Our big takeaway? We need to get much more specific about which jobs — and which learners — will benefit the most from skills-based hiring and advancement. And we believe that means focusing on learners with some college but no degree in sectors that do not have highly regulated hiring systems (e.g., healthcare and education). Skills are a second-order consideration for those with degrees, and regulated sectors are much less likely to drop degree requirements in the near term. Industry-recognized non-degree credentials are already widely used in sectors such as information technology and for functional skills like project management. We expect skills-based pathways to continue growing in education and healthcare specifically, along with a greater shift toward stackable credentials and earn-as-you-learn opportunities, such as apprenticeships, across sectors with less stringent hiring systems.

“The rise of generative AI as a partner in knowledge and creative work will fuel trends toward skills-based learning programs and competency-based education. The skills of the future won’t pit human against robot, but will usher in an era of the two achieving together. In this future, both human and AI development will benefit from a skills orientation precisely aligned with real-world, resilient, and robust career opportunities.” — Jess Stokes, Director, WGU Labs
#6 Learning-to-Work Transition The transition from learning to work is opaque to students and employers, and prone to leaks.

Update on this Problem

Despite research that shows that earning a degree is almost always worthwhile, individuals are questioning more than ever whether higher education is really worth the rising costs. That skepticism is at least partially driven by the learning-to-work transition, which continues to pose challenges for all parties involved. 

Students want to see more employment value from their education. Nearly one-third (29%) of Americans think a traditional four-year degree does not prepare students for a well-paying job in today’s economy. Employers want more visibility into the skills graduates gain from their education. Just 62% of employers believe that most or all college graduates possess the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in entry-level positions. But institutions of higher education can’t solve this problem on their own. Forty percent of employers don't offer any type of paid work-based training — internships, cooperative education programs, apprenticeships or programs such as clinics and team projects — to students or potential employees.

More needs to be done to address persistent structural barriers that impede pathways to opportunities, and new solutions are needed to modernize outdated systems and encourage shifts in mindset. 

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

The Broken Pathway Between Higher Ed and the Workforce

Given today's shifting social, financial, and political landscape, there is a growing appetite to develop stronger partnerships between institutions of higher education and the workforce. Yet we still don’t have a scalable model of how such partnerships could offer better pathways from learning to earning. To find out what we’re getting wrong about higher education and workforce partnerships, we convened a group of stakeholders including experts from higher education, workforce, philanthropy, and policy in New Orleans in June 2023. Together, we explored the barriers impeding the development of effective pathway partnerships, including a lack of a shared language around skills, outdated approaches to student resources and internships, a one-way learning model, and overlooked transitional periods in the learner journey. The convening of experts also ideated several solutions included in our resulting white paper, such as addressing local needs with scalable solutions, modernizing student support services, redesigning the internship model, and holding organizations accountable for providing continued learning and upskilling opportunities to their employees.  

The Importance of Understanding Your User Base

WGU Labs partnered with several career training solutions in 2023 that highlighted the importance of market research for early stage EdTech startups. Understanding why learners enroll in programs to advance their careers is critical. For example, one EdTech solution we analyzed was targeting users without postsecondary education or career experience in their marketing, but our research revealed that the majority of people actually taking their courses were mid-career professionals with degrees who likely wanted to upskill for a promotion. Likewise, our analysis of a leadership program showed that most of their learners were already leaders at their companies who wanted to build on their foundation of skills. Understanding your user base is critical to aligning your messaging with your product — and ensuring it solves real pain points. 

Predictions for 2024

More Impactful Internship Experiences

Though they remain too few and far between, especially for students from under-resourced communities, internships can be a vital bridge between education and a career. But many internships fail to build career identity, create strong professional networks, and establish the connection between learning and working. It’s clear the existing internship model is ripe for innovation. As AI continues to rapidly advance, performing some of the functions previously done by entry-level employees, we believe that companies will accelerate partnerships with HiEd to build internships, apprenticeships, and other programs that will help entry-level, new college grads arrive with relevant experience for their first jobs — ready to provide value that technology cannot replicate.

More Employer Engagement

We talk a lot about what higher education must do to better prepare students for careers, but relatively little about what employers should do to help recent graduates launch successful careers. If companies became better recipients of talent, we could create stronger pathways between learning and earning, benefitting both employees and their employers. In the year ahead, we predict more investment in solutions that address continuous learning and workplace training. We also foresee employers playing a bigger role in financing and shaping workforce solutions to serve as a pipeline to fill workforce gaps. 

Unification of Learning-to-Work Data

As AI becomes more advanced, we believe 2024 will see the creation of more databases that unify disparate sources of information. For example, the Harvard Project on Workforce, launched in late 2023, is the first-ever directory of nearly 17K short-term training providers across the U.S. While the database currently only includes a few data points per provider, the team plans to continue building it out. We now have some of the data needed to map training programs to job types, hiring rates, salaries, and student success rates — we just need to build the tools that unify it all. 

“Stronger partnerships between employers and higher education institutions are increasingly critical to set students up for success in the workforce with relevant expertise, durable skills, and real-world experience.” — Brad Bernatek, Managing Director of the WGU Labs Fund & Accelerator
#7 The Future of Learning Higher Education is not structured to support continuous work-learn cycles that are required in the modern workforce.

Update on this Problem

Continuous learning is necessary to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving workplace. But many employers don’t prioritize learning opportunities that would benefit both their organization and their employees. While 94% of organizations offer some form of skill-based training, only 31% offer all of the following: initial skill training, job-maintenance training, employee development, and upskilling.

A degree is still valuable for many careers. However, the nature of work is changing faster than we can create degree programs — and graduate potential employees — to fill the jobs that are needed now. Take the green economy, for example. This is an emerging industry that requires not only new technology but also people with new skill sets. Similarly, the ability to use artificial intelligence tools will soon become a prerequisite for many careers. According to OpenAI, 80% of Fortune 500 companies have already begun using ChatGPT since its rollout in late 2022. Microcredentials, short-term certifications, and other flexible, workforce-oriented skills acquisition programs can help workers develop these skills quickly to meet demand.

2023 Insights and Emerging Solutions

SparkLearn: Bridging the Deskless Workforce Learning Gap

Many of today’s workers no longer work in a strict “place.” Rideshare drivers, solar panel technicians, personal grocery shoppers, and freelance furniture assembly laborers make up an increasing share of the workforce. Yet these mobile and deskless workers are often overlooked when it comes to career advancement, promotions, and opportunities to increase their education. They frequently face barriers in accessing traditional training and development opportunities. More inclusive and accessible learning solutions that ensure these workers have access to educational resources are needed in order to equip them to thrive in the evolving workplace and address a critical need for greater diversity within the organization. We recently invested in SparkLearn, a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) seeking to shift this dynamic with its mobile-first learning platform designed for deskless workers and the companies that employ them.

Julius: Training the Next Generation of Clean Energy Workers

As wildfires, hurricanes, and other climate disasters continue to increase, national investments in the green energy transition by the Biden administration are more critical than ever. But implementing these investments has been challenging, partially due to the lack of a skilled workforce needed to meet demand. While projections suggest that the number of new green jobs could reach nine million by 2032, the stark reality is that a significant majority of energy companies, approximately 88%, are already struggling to find qualified candidates. Moreover, the green industries suffer from significant underrepresentation of women and people of color. That’s why we see so much potential in Julius, one of the Accelerator clients we invested in this year. Julius is dedicated to addressing the clean energy transition talent gap by providing inclusive solutions to start and grow green careers.

Predictions for 2024

Higher Quality Bar for EdTech Startups

The EdTech investment landscape is undergoing a considerable shift, due in part to the broader macroeconomic environment and a reevaluation of investment strategies in the venture capital space. Venture capitalists are finding it harder to raise new funds, forcing many to conserve the cash they have until the market thaws out. As a result, many EdTech startups are struggling to raise new rounds of funding or obtain the high valuations prevalent at the height of the pandemic. But companies with strong foundations, a growing customer base, and a clear pathway to scalability are still able to attract investors. While we expect VC funding to loosen up in the next year or two, we believe that a higher bar for quality is here to stay. 

Paradigm-less Learning Paths

Adult learners are becoming increasingly more common in higher education. Online learning is growing in popularity. Workers need to continuously acquire new skills to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving workplace. As a result, there is no typical learner — or place of learning. The new paradigm of learning is no paradigm. We predict a future of education where learners have more autonomy over their individual paths, rather than being forced into “standard” models that don’t address their diverse experiences, with numerous on and off-ramps to learning experiences that support their unique needs.

“Capital investments, academic program development, and work-learn-work cycles have become misaligned as technological advancement continues to outpace the status quo. New financing mechanisms are needed to support rapid yet innovative solutions to the upskilling challenges employers and learners everywhere are facing.”  —  Jason Levin, Executive Director, WGU Labs

WGU Labs is the nonprofit EdTech consulting, incubation, research, and design arm of Western Governors University, where our mission is to identify and support scalable solutions that address the biggest challenges in education today. Learn more by learning about our services and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Want to work with us to solve the Wicked Problems?