With New Online Marketplace, Community Colleges Hope to Better Compete With For-Profits

2 months ago 1368

Community colleges are staking a claim in the territory of online course marketplaces.

They’re about a decade behind their university counterparts, who helped to found edX in 2012, the same year that startup Coursera launched its competing service, now worth millions.

But leaders of a new platform called Unmudl say the time is right for community colleges to collaborate and make their workforce-training programs available more widely by marketing them through a shared website.

It’s a vision quite different from the traditional mission of community colleges to serve their communities—the literal, physical ones that surround their campuses.

“They want to serve in their own locales, but their markets need to go farther,” says Holly Zanville, a research professor and co-director of the Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy at George Washington University who recently published a commissioned report about Unmudl. “The future of the world is not to focus on your own backyard.”

After two years of planning, Unmudl has several community college partners, very purple branding, and even a jingle that manages to kinda-rhyme the word “unmuddled” with “befuddled,” “puzzle,” and “bundle.”

Now, it just needs students.

“People are using it in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands,” says Julian Alssid, chief marketplace engagement officer at SocialTech.ai, the company that runs the Unmudl platform.

Courses For Jobs, Not For Credit

Unmudl advertises its services as being for “grown-ups” who are looking for “a better job in weeks instead of years.” Many of the more than 200 courses currently available through the platform last only a few days, or a month.

All of the classes offer skills training explicitly linked to employment. Course profiles feature statistics about typical industry salaries and list the companies that have hired completers. The platform is designed to allow recruiters to contact course instructors about job opportunities, or even correspond directly with students.

Some courses are entirely online, while others are designed to have in-person components. Prices range from $12 for an online, on-demand class about quality improvement to $9,000 for an online, synchronous course teaching software engineering.

“Some of these courses are not that cheap,” Zanville acknowledges. “The colleges didn’t want to feel defensive about that. Some of these courses are high-end, valuable real estate.”

Although backed by community colleges, not all of the courses are eligible for credit. The report documenting the origins of Unmudl notes that “there is significant opportunity for colleges to gain enrollment within the noncredit space,” especially among working adults who want a job, not necessarily a degree.

But the platform is helping community colleges think through how to use prior-learning assessments to award credit if users do want it, even when the course isn’t technically credit-bearing.

“Practically speaking, we’re working with the non-credit side mostly because they can respond most rapidly to industry,” Alssid says. “We fully recognize that credits are still the main coin of the realm and explicitly show the non-credit-to-credit links.”

Who Benefits?

The expenses of operating Unmudl are shared among the community college partners and employers who pay to have access to the platform. Revenue is also shared among the colleges who host courses, with “15 or 20 percent” going to SocialTech.ai, Alssid says, “to keep the lights on.”

Unmudl aims to help community colleges attract learners from around the country. Until now, these institutions have not had a “national online platform” for recruitment, Alssid says, and therefore have lost potential learners to for-profit colleges that “historically have done a better job than the community colleges targeting students for specific jobs and careers.”

“There is a massive opportunity to make inroads in those markets. Right now they are barely a player,” Alssid says. “It’s an important public service.”

The benefits for learners who use Unmudl are supposed to be better jobs and pay bumps. But not everyone is optimistic that the platform’s short courses are a sure way to improve people’s employment prospects.

Monique O. Ositelu, a senior policy analyst for New America who has studied short-term credentials, expressed “caution and concern” about the promises made by the platform. In focus groups for her research, many people who participated in short courses said that their relatively brief classroom time did not prepare them for work as well as did actual on-the-job experience.

And Ositelu says that salary ranges associated with short skills courses can be misleading. Data analysis from New America shows that half of adults with a short-term certificate who are employed earn $30,000 or less per year.

Additionally, according to Ostielu, salary ranges and averages can mask inequities in how experiences and identities affect pay. For example, someone who takes a short, non-credit course to supplement her bachelor’s degree will probably have a different employment outcome than someone without any other higher education. And women and people of color who have short-term certificates tend to earn less than men and white people.

“Within our society, these systems of inequity are embedded so much that it is automated. It takes a great degree of intentionality to make sure you’re addressing these equity gaps,” Ositelu says. “If you do this blanket, uniform approach, you’re only going to widen those equity gaps.”

Yet Unmudl’s leaders say that companies are interested in using the platform to fix inequities by recruiting people they may not otherwise.

“So far, the employers we’re speaking with uniformly are looking at this as a way to address the diversity, inclusion and equity at their companies,” Alssid says. “For many of them, they don’t routinely look to the community college as a resource.”

Even if Unmudl helps workers secure new, better jobs, the pay bumps they receive could be fleeting.

“Very short-term programs of less than a year, they have incremental effects on your earnings. After a while, they actually diminish,” Ositelu says. “Not like a bachelor’s degree, where you keep gaining value.”

Unmudl may have a solution for that problem: more Unmudl.

As Tracy Hartzler, president of Central New Mexico Community College, said in the Unmudl report: “Without a doubt we are thinking about lifelong learning.”

Broadcasting the Message

As Unmudl rolls out its marketing campaign, expect to get that jingle stuck in your head.

One advantage that for-profit colleges have long held over nonprofit and public institutions is in the large amount of money they’re able to spend on advertising. Leaders at Unmudl hope that a partnership with a broadcast television company will help their platform reach millions of people who might otherwise enroll at a for-profit competitor—or not pursue higher education at all.

The TV company is Evoca, a startup that is piloting its media services in Idaho and Phoenix. It’s a beneficiary of changes in federal technology policy that will increase the number of channels that televisions can receive, enable mobile devices to pick up broadcast video and make TV more interactive through internet connections.

Although the bulk of what Evoca offers requires a paid subscription, the company has created two free educational channels, one geared toward kids, the other toward adults. The latter, called Path, is intended to be a “first-stop discovery mechanism” to inform viewers about career paths and relevant Unmudl training programs, says Art Seavey, director of Evoca Learn and a former program officer at the Gates Foundation.

Leaders at Unmudl hope this kind of “edumercial” will help “people become aware of jobs they never knew existed,” Alssid says. And with the interactive features coming to “NextGen” TV services like Evoca, it will be very easy for viewers to act on that awareness.

During a recent webinar outlining Umudl’s plans, a leader wrote a message in the chat window to explain that vision:

“imagine a working learner sitting on the sofa learning about autonomous vehicles or drones and up pops up on the screen: enroll now - no application fees…with the remote you click with your remote and you are in the course!”