The pandemic caught traditional, four-year colleges off guard, and they (and their students) have paid a high price. College enrollments for fall 2020 declined by 16 percent and 43 percent among freshmen and international students, respectively. Since the pandemic began, undergraduate enrollment is down 5.9 percent—and community college enrollment by 11.3 percent—according to data (as of March 25) from the National Student Clearinghouse. If forecasts for fall 2021 hold, traditional colleges are in for another rough year.

Covid alone isn’t to blame for higher education’s woes. Many prospective students are thinking twice before enrolling, largely because of financial considerations. Only half of alumni agree that their college experience was worth the cost, and after a year of remote learning, those numbers are likely to grow.

While traditional colleges are stumbling, registrations and engagement with educational technology (“EdTech”) learning services have skyrocketed, driven by rising demand for lower-cost, more efficient alternatives. Consider the evidence from DataCamp, an EdTech provider that focuses on data science and programming skills. In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rene Kizilcec, Katharine Sadowski, and I showed that the introduction of non-essential business-closure orders led to an increase in both registrations and engagement on the DataCamp platform. We also found that this increase was proportional across zip codes that varied in income levels and racial composition—thus suggesting a democratizing effect.

One of the strongest criticisms of EdTech providers is that they fail to equip students with the skills and credentials necessary to succeed in the labor market. Two main assumptions undergird these criticisms: first, that traditional colleges are providing holistic training; second, that holding the right credentials is more important than possessing actual job skills. Given the declining returns of a traditional college degree, as well as the growing accounts of dissatisfaction from bachelor’s degree holders (even from Ivy League institutions), the first assumption no longer really holds. And the second is also starting to crumble, as employers increasingly prioritize the ability to do a job well over how candidates appear on paper.

EdTech companies are also getting better at assessing their learners’ skill levels. DataCamp uses a three-step process for certification: timed assessments to prove technical knowledge; coding challenges to combine individual skills; and case studies to demonstrate communication skills. That means students receive training not only in individual skills but also on communicating, combining, and applying them in practice. The effectiveness of this approach to imparting and assessing competency demonstrates that there are other, potentially less standard, but highly effective pathways for skilled workers in the digital economy.

If we’re serious about modernizing our workforce for the digital economy, then we need to get creative in delivering educational services. Its expansion during the pandemic has demonstrated EdTech’s potential and versatility.

Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images


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