Alternate Pathways: The Role of Brands in the Rise of Self-Directed Education

July, 2022

Several cultural forces are converging to produce alternate pathways to traditional education systems. Firstly, there’s the rise in student loan debt. Over 43 million Americans collectively have $1.75 trillion in student loan debt. It’s the kind of debt that people say delays or prevents them from achieving life milestones like getting married, having children, or buying a house. Younger people heading to college may not want to assume that level of financial liability. They may not even comprehend how such liability can affect their life long-term after graduation. And they may not always have to – many big-name companies have begun nixing degree requirements for new hires.

Secondly, a series of lawsuits is aiming to roll back 40 years of precedent on admissions policies that take race into consideration to promote and ensure diverse student bodies. This fall, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in cases about the admissions practices of both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Should the ruling eliminate the affirmative action practices, it’s likely they’ll see lower enrollments from historically underrepresented minorities.

Lastly, rapid advances in technology. This broadly encompasses things like the knowledge-sharing on social media where people can monetize their content or learn from others, algorithms that push social posts and memes about the perils of student loan debt that infiltrate the psyche, as well as articles that show possible paths to succes that don’t rely on college degrees. And with the rapid growth of innovative technologies, there’s an increasing need for many to adopt skills that educational institutions can be too slow to teach. To stay competitive in the job market of the future, 86%* of people say they have made a point to learn about emerging tech.

Creating resources for a changing job market

Some brands are realizing the opportunity they have in the education space. They’re sharing their expertise, cementing their position as a category leader by providing people with invaluable knowledge and, hopefully, getting paid in longevity and loyalty both from customers and employees. 

Having an idea for starting your own business is one thing but knowing how to create an engaging brand is entirely different. But brand identities are critical to success. Shutterstock Academy provides curated educational resources to enhance your photography and video skills with working knowledge of color, design, filmmaking, and branding. 

Verizon’s Skill Forward program is part of the company’s $44 million commitment to training 500,000 workers for in-demand technology jobs by 2030. The program provides free training in technical and soft skills to prepare America’s workforce for technology careers in roles like cybersecurity analysts, IT support specialists, junior web developers, junior full stack java developers, junior cloud practitioners, and digital marketing analysts. After completing the program, participants receive support to continue their education or find full-time employment, internships, or apprenticeships.  

Personal financial management platform is sharing its financial literacy tools with underserved communities to help improve people’s financial habits. At Yale University, Mint’s knowledge is used to help students learn to manage their money ahead of their entrance into the workforce. 

Within the realm of education, brands have the potential to INSPIRE, ENABLE and SPONSOR 

Imagine what’s possible. Brands have the ability, and arguably responsibility, to set an example. Whether it’s behaving responsibly, ensuring representation, or solving global problems, brands can start with a spark of imagination. For example:   

  • Create immersive and sensory experiences with leading technologies that inspire a sense of wonder.
  • Contribute to the greater good, enabling people to belong to something bigger than themselves.
  • Harness the imagination of the collective by seeking input on new products, service offerings, or creative outputs.

Help people help themselves. Leading by example, brands can combat complex issues like income inequality through their own hiring and employment practices. For example:   

  • Remove arbitrary prerequisites for job applicants, focusing on skills first.
  • Be open to a variety of qualified experiences and commit to equal pay regardless of gender or race. 
  • Go beyond mentoring to encourage and foster “sponsorship” between junior and senior employees. 
  • Partner with community colleges in addition to four-year colleges for internship programs.
  • Create networking or peer-to-peer skill-sharing opportunities.

Build and sponsor skill development. This is where brands can stop talking and take action. For example:   

  • Develop online curricula in topics relevant to the brand. 
  • Create scholarship opportunities or provide grant money for education in related fields of interest.
  • Fill a gap by funding education areas that are the first to be cut in public school budgets, such as music and the arts.
  • Contribute to areas with a demonstrated need for added development, such as STEM, robotics, personal finance, sex education, and nutrition.
  • Fund continuing education for employees, fostering soft skills like curiosity that are increasingly invaluable in driving workplace success. 

What other opportunities do you see for brands to share their knowledge and create alternative education pathways?

* Source: Horizon Media, Finger on the Pulse. Survey fielded 5/31/22-6/9/22, n=986

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