More students are pursuing higher education than ever before — but at a higher cost. The result? The national student debt burden is approaching $1.5 trillion, and in 2016 the average college student graduated with over $37,000 in student loans. For many potential college students who are now the future of our workforce, this process has become untenable. To find jobs, they need skills, but at what cost?
I’m hardly alone in advocating for HR practices that seek unconventional candidates for employment — namely individuals with varied expertise, nontraditional career paths and those who have acquired higher education in a unique university setting (or outside of a university entirely).
Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University (WGU), also believes in the importance of competency over a flashy degree. WGU provides an education to students on unconventional learning paths and prepares them for the workforce in more practical ways. The school was founded just over 20 years ago and has awarded close to 100,000 degrees, today serving approximately 85,000 students. I interviewed Pulsipher for the Disrupt Yourself Podcast to understand more about the benefits of alternative education programs and why he believes organizations should recruit talent with non-traditional educational backgrounds.
Degrees aren’t everything
WGU’s programs aren’t designed for traditional college-aged students. Rather, the university provides an opportunity for working adults who have sometimes earned college credits, but not a full degree. There are more than 31 million such adults in the U.S. Often they live in rural areas, where educational access is poor and the education ethos less developed. Because it costs about half as much as a state school, a WGU education is more attainable.
“On average, WGU graduates earn nearly $20,000 more in income than they did when they started. Our average student is 37 years old, our oldest graduates are in their late 70s and early 80s,” according to Pulsipher. From a hiring perspective, these graduates are a gold mine — they have life experiences, and are often hungry for previously denied opportunities to prove themselves.
WGU’s programs are fully online, all emphasizing practical, high-demand expertise: business, technology, health services and teaching. Contrary to popular belief, many jobs in these fields do not require four-year degrees. Thanks to technology that can now do a lot of the heavy lifting, many roles now simply require competency in a specific field and adaptability to new tools. WGU’s approach ensures that graduates obtain just that.
It’s about competency, not curriculum
WGU employs an entirely competency-based grading model.
“If you’re competent, then you’re meeting the standards that are needed in the workplace environment for that core subject matter. There are no grades; you either pass or you don’t,” Pulsipher explains.
One benefit of this alternative education model is that it ensures that students actually learn everything they need to know in order to perform the tasks associated with the jobs they’ll be seeking. Plus, with no required electives or liberal arts courses, students can focus on gaining specific skills targeted to their future jobs.
WGU isn’t right for everyone, but for a sizeable piece of the adult population, it offers an accessible, cost-effective alternative to the traditional university. Many jobs still require a traditional university education and advanced degrees, but others do not, and for those who’ve been left behind by unattainable educational opportunities, even basic jobs can be out of reach. Through WGU’s model, these students reach their potential, improve their competencies and contribute to the workforce.
The takeaway for HR professionals is that unconventional educational paths can provide an expansive pool of well-qualified talent that shouldn’t be dismissed. There are advantages to hiring candidates overlooked by others — these capable people can bring not only specialized competency to the table, but also life experience, stability and the drive to prove what they can do.
This article originally appeared on ReWork, a publication exploring the future of work.