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Postsecondary Education Trends We’re Watching in 2023

January 11, 2023 4-minute read
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As Ascendium’s Education Philanthropy team reflects on what we’ve learned in 2022 and refines our grantmaking in 2023, there are a handful of postsecondary education trends we’ll be monitoring closely. Our team will consider the implications these trends may have on our grantmaking and continue to follow them throughout the year.

Rethinking What Postsecondary Education Looks Like

Today’s students are often older, more diverse, working one or more jobs, raising families and struggling to make ends meet. The postsecondary education systems that were built years ago for more traditional students are, in many cases, in need of revising. The COVID-19 health crisis drove home the urgency of this situation, creating increasing demand for flexible and adaptable ways to access postsecondary education. This includes, among other solutions, online and hybrid offerings, out-of-class learning experiences, shorter semesters and short-term, skills-based credentials that lead to family-sustaining careers. All students are increasingly demanding the kind of flexibility these models offer.

Ensuring Credits Received Count Towards Learner Goals

The diverse paths learners take and ways they receive credit for their experiences require that institutions have policies and tools to assess and apply prior credit efficiently and equitably. Still, silos surrounding learner and credit mobility remain, resulting in significant credit loss for these learners when entering a new institution. This loss of time and money for learners with none to spare can impede degree completion. While some reforms promise more equitable and efficient credit mobility, there is growing urgency and demand from students and policymakers to ensure that all learning gets counted towards a credential that has value. We’ll be watching and supporting new approaches that help increase learner mobility.

Connecting Rural Learners to In-Demand Job Opportunities

While job growth in some rural areas presents opportunities for upward mobility, not all rural communities are experiencing this same trend. Because of this, grantmakers with an interest in rural postsecondary education have a dual challenge. They must think carefully about how to best support the development of career pathways in places where they already exist and work with partners in rural communities to create new jobs and pathways to jobs that don’t yet exist. Based on the needs of local employers, postsecondary education institutions and workforce training providers will need to work together to create the pathways to in-demand jobs and the qualified workforce to fill them.

Opportunities for jobs have also been created through federal infrastructure workforce investments. However, rural places may not have the capacity to leverage these investments, particularly in an inclusive way that creates opportunities for learners and workers from low-income backgrounds. We will be looking closely at opportunities for philanthropy to partner with postsecondary institutions, workforce development providers and state and local governments to ensure these resources yield strong opportunities for upward mobility in rural communities.

Bringing Incarcerated Learners into the Mainstream

For decades, postsecondary education in prison programs have been operating in the margins. We foresee that changing with the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated learners in July. It’s our hope that the reinstatement of Pell will accelerate a trend of these programs being brought more into the mainstream. Additionally, colleges, universities and the field will need to more broadly understand these learners as part of their student population. We’ll be monitoring closely and making investments to ensure that we have the data necessary to understand and integrate these learners and the programs that serve them. In turn, this will help us and others define quality, ensure equitable access and monitor the outcomes of these programs.

Clarifying the Value Postsecondary Education Credentials in the Workforce

Postsecondary education is changing. Institutions across the U.S. continue to experience enrollment declines, a trend that accelerated with the COVID-19 health crisis. At the same time, there has been an increase of short-term, skills-based credentials offered by nonprofits, institutions and corporations. These changes are occurring amidst public discourse examining what value degrees and other credentials have in the employment marketplace.

In late November 2022, we hosted a meeting of thought leaders and innovators to explore the implications of shifting labor market trends on equitable postsecondary education. As a result, some clear themes emerged.

  • Postsecondary education is not one size fits all – for both learners and employers.
  • There are institutional gaps related to practices like career advising that exacerbate inequitable opportunity.
  • Development of skills-based education programs should be based on labor market realities and use workforce data. There should also be a focus on who’s getting access (or not) to opportunities that lead to upward mobility.
  • Positive and equitable workforce outcomes rely on cross-sector collaboration, including with employers.

Looking to the Future

Over the next year, Ascendium has the opportunity to build on insights, lead important conversations about postsecondary education outcomes and support partners offering high-quality supports and programs resulting in upward mobility on a national scale.

“Our learnings from the last year have given us a solid foundation for new grantmaking in 2023,” said Keith Witham, Ascendium’s deputy director - education grantmaking. “We’re watching these trends and others closely to identify, evaluate or scale solutions that promise equitable paths to upward mobility for all learners, especially those from low-income backgrounds.”