How subscription-based education supports lifelong learning for students and workers

Shorter, flexible, and affordable just in-time learning opportunities are becoming a greater need
By: | December 22, 2021
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Fernando Bleichmar

There is a lot of attention on college completion rates today, and with only about half of students graduating, it’s one metric that certainly needs improving. While it’s imperative we provide students with the most affordable and efficient route to a credential (“completion”), when it comes to learning, you’re never really quite “done.”

With the rate of information and the rate at which jobs change today, learning isn’t “complete,” it’s continuous. More than ever workers are faced with the need to upskill to continue in their career. Learning, it turns out, resembles more of a circle than a linear finish line.

My own professional and personal journey has followed that track as well. After completing my undergraduate degree, I found my way back to higher education for another credential, but the need to continually learn new skills hasn’t slowed down—if anything, it’s sped up. Case in point, I’m now enrolling in an online digital marketing course as my role has evolved and business needs have changed.

Shorter, flexible, and affordable just in-time learning opportunities are becoming a greater need. Unfortunately, higher education institutions aren’t focusing on harnessing this demand, and they should be.

Learning is a lifelong investment and subscription-based education models can help fill gaps from traditional higher ed—providing education at students’ convenience and within their budgets. Next year might be the year when institutions start putting more focus on the learning that happens after “completion.”

Understanding the value of subscription-based education models

Not every student can afford college tuition or even single courses at their local college or university. Cengage commissioned a survey that found about half (49%) of students say cost of living or cost of tuition and course materials are the biggest barriers to higher education.

However, affordability isn’t the only obstacle. Many students struggle to attend classes on a fixed schedule while balancing part-time jobs, caring for family members and other responsibilities. Flexibility is an important factor in students’ enrollment decisions—nearly two in five (375) say the availability of online learning courses would positively impact their ability to earn a credential.

Subscription-based models can ease both of these challenges by offering an affordable, alternative path that allows students to learn on their own time. Rather than a massive one-time investment, subscriptions provide more affordable and flexible educational content that learners can use to fine-tune their skills throughout their careers.

Of course, it may seem like a wild idea, and there are more questions than answers, but this type of model has worked in other areas of higher education, including course materials.

Changing mindsets of students and academic institutions

The goal of our education system is to create knowledgeable, skilled and productive workers, not just “completers.” To achieve this goal, students and institutions need to recognize that two or four years of learning will not sustain personal and professional growth throughout one’s life.

The majority of current post-secondary students (68%) say they have considered alternative education programs such as skills courses or micro-credentials, and half of recent college graduates are already considering additional certifications or training to advance in their field. Learning doesn’t stop the moment a student earns their degree.

Academic leaders, institutions and the technology platforms that support learning need to look toward creating and promoting new models like subscription-based education that support students beyond graduation. And universities need to better harness the need for just-in-time learning.

Preparing for new workforce dynamics in 2022 through up- and re-skilling

Beyond students and institutions, employers are starting to focus more on continued education as an opportunity to entice workers to join their organization, retain current employees and respond to changing business needs.

At the end of 2020, 80% of U.S. employers said they had more difficulty filling job openings due to skills gaps compared to the year before. In response, companies like Macy’s and Verizon have invested in education programs that help their employees upskill and reskill. Lifelong learning isn’t a fleeting trend, it’s a serious investment for employers.

Whether they offer their own courses or provide reimbursement for courses at an institution, businesses are seeing the real-world benefits of continued learning in the workplace.

It’s time that we create and encourage more affordable and accessible learning paths, and chart a clear path for students to gain skills to enter the workforce and grow in their careers. Subscription based models can accomplish these goals, enabling today’s students and workers to be lifelong learners and achieve upward mobility.

Fernando Bleichmar is the executive vice president and general manager of U.S. higher education at Cengage Group.