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History tells us that when the economy starts to trend downward, increased enrollment in education and training — from high school to career school — is often quick to follow.

A decade ago during the Great Recession, the unemployment rate reached as high as 10 percent. At the same time, enrollment in undergraduate education spiked by more than 2.5 million, and record numbers of Americans participated in federal job training programs.

But history hasn’t prepared us for the world we find ourselves in today. Weekly jobless claims have now topped 1 million for more than three months. The unemployment rate is at its worst since the Great Depression, and the path to economic recovery is uncertain at best. This summer, enrollment enrollment was up at state flagship colleges and local community colleges, and everywhere in between. And if the past is any guide, the increase in demand for training will only accelerate. 

But this time around, the current U.S. education and workforce system — from unemployment programs to state workforce boards to colleges themselves — may be uniquely unprepared to receive it.

This spring, many traditional education and training providers were overwhelmed by the rapid shift to online learning — and found themselves struggling to stand up the infrastructure to make the experience tolerable, much less effective. And if the experiences of UNC and others are any guide, it’s all but inevitable that every provider in the country will have to teach at least partially online in the fall. 

The country’s education and training system is already pushed to the brink, with some 10 million people enrolled in community colleges, and the same number across 47 federal workforce programs. Now, a fragmented system designed to deliver highly localized, in-person support must be responsible for helping millions more displaced workers get the training they will desperately need to survive in tomorrow’s economy — and, in many cases, doing it with no access to in-person programs.

Are we ready for this influx? And — more importantly — even if we can handle the demand, is that system supplying the right product? Amidst growing evidence that Americans prefer shorter-form, “nontraditional” sources of education and training, it’s unclear that traditional degree programs alone will be able deliver the outcomes — career opportunity and economic mobility — that millions of displaced workers will need, at the time they need them.

The clock is ticking if we want to respond to the flood of demand for training that the country has already begun to see. Here’s what policymakers, education leaders, and employers should do to be ready for it.

Begin with the end in mind. In response to the Great Recession, our primary approach to increase funding for legacy workforce development programs and — especially — higher education institutions. While these programs worked in some cases, they were a poor fit in others. Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story includes a memorable — and troubling — anecdote of an adult student wondering what he was doing in a psychology class.

If the end goal is a job, the training program must be designed to meet that goal — which means the employer must have a seat at the table. Partnerships like Guild Education’s collaboration with Walmart, or Merit America’s training initiative with Amazon, and McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity program can bridge the gap between training and job placement. And as employers like IBM embrace hiring based on skills, rather than degrees, they are demonstrating that you don’t need four years of college to succeed on the job — and mitigating the endemic disparities of our legacy approach to hiring.

Meet learners’ real and immediate needs. Is a four-year computer science degree really necessary for a career as a software developer or an entry-level data analyst? The answer is obvious to anyone who’s seen the results of programs like General Assembly, Revature, or Genuent: programs that emerged in the wake of the 2008 recession whose job placement rates consistently demonstrate the potential of shorter-term skill training programs.

For the vast majority of workers, these programs and certificates might be a faster and more effective route to a job. They’re skills-focused, career-aligned, and they often create a community of care — combining career and other wraparound services (e.g., mentoring, job placement, childcare support, transportation expenses) that can help adult learners balance work and family commitments. Perhaps most importantly, they can often be delivered effectively online — which will be mission-critical as we continue to weather the effects of the pandemic.

Prioritize affordability. Since 2006, outstanding student loan debt has more than tripled, surpassing $1.6 trillion as of this year. Research from the St. Louis Fed suggests that the Great Recession was a significant driver of the student loan crisis: at two-year colleges, average annual borrowing increased by nearly 50% during that period.

Today, we have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to create a more effective system. And fortunately, novel financing models have emerged since the recession that may help de-risk consumer investments in training. Consider the case of the San Diego Workforce Partnership, which last year launched a first-of-its-kind renewable learning programusing an income share agreement model. Students pay nothing up front, and instead pay a percentage of their salary after they graduate and get a job. It’s an approach that aligns costs and consumer risk with the actual outcomes of the program, rather than the input-based approach of traditional higher education.

In the wake of the pandemic, the U.S. education and training system will face a fork in the road — while at the same time trying to manage a massive spike in enrollment. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to begin rethinking the system and how it serves consumers. If we don’t do it now, we’ll be too late by the time those enrollments begin to climb. Will policymakers, employers, and education providers learn from the mistakes we made in the last recession? Or will we fall victim to the same kind of stale thinking?

Frank Britt is CEO of Penn Foster. Scott Fleming is Chief Strategy Officer of Strada Education Network.

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