Three ways to reimagine degree programs to increase equity, access, and job readiness



The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of higher education institutions.

Greater access to education could help reduce the disparities in educational attainment and increase employment opportunities that have been made worse by COVID-19.

Higher education institutions can use technology to make more degrees more accessible, design degree programs that are more hands-on and skill-based, and remove admissions barriers.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of higher education institutions worldwide. COVID-19 has contributed to the worsening of many young people’s employment prospects and pre-existing gender gap. In 2020, youth employment declined by 8.7%, more than twice that of adults 25-plus.

However, expanding access to education can open up economic opportunities. Higher education increases employment rates, job security, and lifetime earnings.

Students need access to skill-first learning opportunities to prepare them for the modern workplace in this uncertain and uneven economic environment. Higher education is more important than ever, including delivery, admissions, and curriculum. This will enable socioeconomic mobility by equitable access.

Higher education institutions need to leverage technology to reimagine degree programs to increase equity and access while also equipping students with the skills necessary to find work.

Use technology to get affordable and accessible degrees

The way universities deliver higher education has been revolutionized by advances in technology, especially online learning. Coursera’s enrollments doubled in 2020 and will increase by 32% in 2024. Online degree programs are being expanded by universities to reach students worldwide and meet growing demand.

Online learning technology allows students to access the best universities around the globe. Higher education institutions can also benefit from this. IIT Roorkee is a top-ranked institute in India and offers an online Post Graduate Certificate (in Data Science and Machine Learning) to its students. Over half (55%) of the students in this program are from outside India. The students come from 14 countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Their students come from more than 25% of the United States.

Universities can increase access by unbundling bachelor’s and master’s degrees to open online courses and stackable credentials. Universities can save money by using open content to attract students to online degrees at lower costs. Colombia’s Universidad de Los Andes has an online MSc in Software Engineering, which is 30% cheaper than the on-campus Master’s Degrees offered by Uniandes Engineering School.

Artificial intelligence (AI), a new avenue for universities, allows them to create programs on a large scale and reasonable price. Faculty and staff at the University of Michigan implemented auto graders to reduce time and improve lab management. Cloud infrastructure allowed the university also to minimize staff and DevOps expenses. AI technology can identify students who need one-on-one support to increase student outcomes.

For hands-on skill development, create job-relevant programs

Universities must adapt their programs to meet the demands of the rapidly changing labor market. Universities can use data-driven market research such as the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report to identify the most in-demand degree programs based on job growth and align them with job outcomes.

Degree programs must provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the job market. More than 150 labs and assignments are available in the cloud at the University of Michigan’s Master of Applied Data Science. This includes more than 30-degree programs. Students can use a pre-configured Jupyter Notebook environment in-browser with real-world data sets, persistent storage, and high-computing capabilities.

To meet the demands of the global workforce, Queen Mary University of London recently launched an online Master of Science degree in Applied Data Analytics. The degree program prepares students to work in data science and data analytics roles. This is the top emerging job, according to the Forum. Students learn by doing real projects and building a portfolio.

Coursera data shows hands-on projects. Programming assignments can lead to a 30% higher rate of skill development and better career outcomes.

Eliminating admission barriers can increase equity and improve equity

Higher education institutions are eliminating application requirements to encourage a diverse student body.

Three online graduate programs at the University of Colorado Boulder offer performance-based admissions. Students are admitted to the University of Colorado Boulder’s online graduate programs by completing a performance pathway, a series of three-credit courses with a minimum 3.0 cumulative grade-point average (GPA). There are no applications, transcripts, fees, or entrance exams.

The university’s first online Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering student didn’t hold a bachelor’s degree. He instead used five years of experience in the tech industry at top companies like Apple and Intel to complete the program in just one year. The university has seen a 30% increase in the number of admitted students to this program over the past year.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Gies College of Business removed the standard test requirements for several online degree programs to better serve underrepresented groups. The Online Master’s of Accounting (MSA), for example, saw a threefold increase in applications after removing the Graduate Management Admission Test(GMAT) requirement. Business schools typically use this test to evaluate the reading, writing, and analytical skills. In 2024, Coursera saw 73% growth in students from underrepresented programs.

Applications for the Gies College of Business’s iMSA degree showing spike after removing GMAT requirement.

Many universities have created degree pathways that use industry-educated content. To prepare for entry-level IT jobs, learners can complete the Google IT Support Professional Certificate in just six months. The certificate can be stacked into a full-time degree, often required for managerial roles. The Google IT program was taken by 34% of current students in the University of London Bachelor of Science Computer Science in the United Kingdom. Many students continue to work even though they are pursuing their degrees.

This approach is promising in reaching underrepresented groups as 58% of US participants in the Google IT program identified themselves as veterans, women, Black, or Latinx.

These programs create highly qualified graduates who can work remotely and provide a diverse talent pool for global companies.

The global workforce faces unprecedented challenges due to rapid digital transformation and the COVID-19 crises. Higher education institutions can rethink the delivery of online degrees to ensure equal access for all people worldwide to affordable, work-relevant, and skills-first degrees.


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