ASU+GSV Day 2: Helping working adult learners thrive in a competency and skills-based economy

Guild is proud to be a Sponsor Partner of the 2022 ASU+GSV Summit. In honor of the summit’s spirit of shared learning, Guild has launched this three-day blog series in which we share key learnings and daily takeaways from ASU+GSV.

The right balance and interplay between different parts of an ecosystem is what fosters a mutually-beneficial environment in which all can thrive. For that reason it is important to look at not only the social mobility a balanced opportunity ecosystem can generate, but how this outcome comes to fruition. To do that, we must look at the requisite components: What does it mean for a university to participate in an opportunity ecosystem? What does it mean for a company?   

On Day One of ASU+GSV’s 2022 Summit, experts from Guild and our learning and employer partners shared examples of ways an ecosystem of opportunity can increase access to social mobility for American workers. During Day 2 of this year’s summit, Guild experts and partners discussed how a deep understanding of working adult learner needs can drive decision-making at critical intersections of work and learning that prepares learners to thrive in a skills-based economy.


Insight #1: Innovative employers are thinking about education well beyond a war for talent context into a strategic investment in opportunity.

The growing ubiquity of education benefits and high employee turnover that shows no sign of tapering off means that an education benefit alone is no longer a differentiator for employers. Instead, how employers offer an education benefit is coming under closer scrutiny. Employers that have a culture of opportunity already know that equitably-structured education benefits bring value that extends well beyond talent attraction and retention alone: They see real opportunities to invest in employees’ development and articulate clear pathways to advancement. 

That’s necessary for would-be working adult learners, explained Paul Freedman, President of Guild’s Learning Marketplace, during a panel discussion focused on education benefits: “Employees want more than a transactional experience; they want investment. The future means creating educational programs that align with job mobility.” Meeting that need through investing in debt-free education can also help companies future-proof through upskilling and pathways. Freedman pointed out that in finance, for example, employers often face a two-sided challenge in the form of jobs they no longer need, and jobs they struggle to fill. “The best way to address that is to take the people whose jobs are ripe for automation and help take them into the future. —This is where all employers should be going,” he said.

For higher education, this deeper focus on social mobility means an opportunity to take a broader view on learner mobility beyond the next job and into upwardly-mobile careers that may, over time, take them elsewhere. Although employers have specific skills needs and invest in their talent in the hope that employees will retain and help meet those needs, they also understand that in a competency and skills-based economy, employees may eventually move on. Freedman argued that the question should be less fixation on if employees leave after several years, and more emphasis on how they leave and the impact they were given the opportunity to make at their company.

Freedman went on to explain that employers investing in opportunity can support employees’ success as working adult learners by smoothing friction points such as payments, time for learning, wraparound supports, and cultivating a culture that prioritizes helping employees understand and leverage their education benefit. 

Paul Freedman, second from left, discusses education in an opportunity and social mobility context. Photo credit: Stephen Cardinale.



Insight #2: Change-makers in higher education are working to ensure all learners are counted —and that all learning counts. 

Ensuring all learners count is foundational to the work of any higher education institution with a commitment to social mobility. Many working adult learners are first generation students and have faced both systemic and circumstantial barriers to educational attainment. Understanding these barriers —as well as student identity— is critical to helping students surmount them and achieve success.  Dr. Gregory Fowler, president of University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), which launched its partnership with Guild last week, summarized that value at a panel focused on expanding equitable access to higher education: “The goal for us and higher ed is to meet students where they are and give them opportunities to experience success. That’s the work to be done.”    

A whole-person approach is central to helping students access the strongest opportunities for success. “At the end of the day it’s about respecting the lived lives and experiences of whole humans,”  Guild Senior Vice President, Dr. Lisa McIntyre-Hite explained in a panel discussion on Credit for X as an equity imperative. 

Part of a whole-person approach is respecting and acknowledging what working adult learners already know before they begin a program —including the knowledge gained outside of the classroom. Knowing that a university would recognize their prior learning, particularly on-the-job training, can have a substantial impact on working adult students’ confidence in their ability to achieve success as students, Emily Scheines, Director of Credit for Prior Learning at Guild said. “Knowing you are applying to and enrolling at an institution that respects your past learning and says you specifically have done something we recognize as college level learning, that is a real confidence boost for people who have tried and left.”

Approaching credit for prior learning can be a daunting task for all collaborators. Guild’s position in the working adult learner opportunity ecosystem combines insights into employer needs and structure with deep expertise in higher education to help streamline the process. “I think a lot about trying to make this incredibly difficult work a little bit easier for all of the stakeholders we serve at  Guild,” Scheines explained. “The big thing is really embedding with employer partners to understand what learning looks at their company, what training looks like, and what are the places where college-level learning is taking place. Then we think about how to position that in a way that is easy for universities to review. Choice-making and translation is the streamlining efforts that makes it scalable and possible for all involved.”

From left to right: Lisa McIntyre-Hite, Emily Scheines, Radhika Krishnadas, Jon Caines, Amber Garrett-Duncan, Nancy Salzman



Taking pressure off of working adult learners

Undertaking the hard work of setting up credit for prior learning means less pressure and responsibility is foisted upon learners to navigate the system. The result is increased confidence and willingness to pursue higher education, and for some, a new way of seeing themselves: “Members and learners told us if it wasn’t for credit for training they would have never thought about going to college or saw themselves as those learners,” Dr. McIntyre-Hite recalled. “That’s a powerful narrative for why we do this work.” 

Dr. Radhika Krishnadas, Executive Director of Learning Design & Professional Development at LSU Online and Continuing Education, a Guild partner, agreed. “For me it’s the recognition, validation, and appreciating the value they bring to the academic degree, and the message that we are sending them —the powerful notion that everything they have done until now counts, and it will propel them through the education door is very affirming. That’s my ‘why’.” 

In addition to helping students feel validated, appreciated, and a sense of belonging, institutions must prioritize making the process for attaining credit for prior learning clear and easily navigable. Nancy Salzman, Executive Vice Chancellor of University of Massachusetts Global, a Guild partner, shared that her institution provides a publicly-available database for prospective students to explore their credit for prior learning options, both in terms of credits and course equivalency.

Including faculty and practitioners

In a healthy education ecosystem, faculty and practitioners are also doing applied learning and are brought on board at an early stage (as coalition of advocates, champions, and trainers) to make it possible for them to unlock opportunity for students.

Getting there takes time and intentionality. “Faculty concern is there for a reason. They take their jobs seriously,” Amber Garrison-Duncan, Executive Vice President of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) said. Meeting faculty and practitioner’s reservations with empathy and openness to substantive feedback builds constructive rapport and over time can create a loop between deliverers and reviewers.

Dr. Krishnadas also found it helpful to cultivate a broader perspective by expanding the conversation to ensure everyone understands the ecosystem responsibility is institution-wide, rather than one office or program. That way, learners can fit anywhere.

Insight #3: Sustainable skills-based hiring and learning design needs collaboration and feedback across the opportunity ecosystem.

The push for employers to prioritize skills-based hiring as an equity imperative has long caused a sense of squeamishness in certain areas of higher ed. An alarmist interpretation of skills-based hiring pushes a narrative that short-form learning is the only future, poised to push the degree into irrelevancy.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s a false dichotomy,” Paul Freedman, President of Guild’s Learning Marketplace said. “It’s ‘and’ and ‘both.’ They simply need to be more interoperable.” Historically, there is a causal connection between educational attainment and income. 

Beyond the degree, as lifelong learners continue to pursue their careers and interests, additional skilling needs arise. This represents an opportunity for higher education to continue to engage learners throughout their careers. 

However, making education connect to career is a collaborative effort, not a call-and-response. Below are key insights from Guild experts, partners, and change-makers from a variety of panels that shed light on how learning provider and employer partners can approach supporting success for working adult learner success in a skills-based economy.

  • Prioritize communicating skilling needs effectively.

For higher education to best align working adult learners with the skills they need to be competitive for upwardly-mobile roles, employers can collaborate in curriculum design by authoring clearer job descriptions that are both specific about skills as well as the context in which they are required, Jason Tyszko, Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation said in a discussion on skills-based hiring. 

 In lieu of years of experience or specific credentials which may carry the same name but evolved over time as proxies for needed skills, greater clarity will help social mobility-conscious institutions. Beyond that, employers can also support competency mapping to help learning partners see where curriculum maps onto specific skills clusters. In turn, learning partners can close a feedback loop that helps eliminate guesswork from curriculum mapping. 

  • Ensure the approach is learner-centric.

“Our learners love it when education is career-connected and they can see how it applies to their work today,” Kate Kraft, Principal at Guild said. 

From an employer perspective, that means clear mobility pathways as well as a culture that embraces the responsibility of supporting talent in their learning journey by providing the flexibility necessary to pursue learning opportunities. 

Although working adult-serving academic institutions tend to design with flexibility in mind, another aspect of that commitment means ensuring the program choices available to time-strapped working adults are presented in a way that makes sense to them. For Kraft, the clear approach is to work with a representative prospective population directly. “We can do taxonomies all day long but what we hear isn’t necessarily what they hear,” she said. “What do they hear versus what do we mean? —Bringing in a learner voice is essential to helping them make choices that are effective to them.”

Intentional inclusion of learner voices also fosters a trust-based rapport that yields valuable feedback and strengthens student success initiatives, Tiffany Taylor, Chief People & Impact Officer at GSV Ventures said. “When you are in community with your students you get better answers to your questions.” 

Kate Kraft, center, discusses the value of learner voices and collaborative partnerships in skills-based hiring. Photo credit: Stephen Cardinale.


  • Help working adult learners make connections between durable skills and the career outcomes they aspire to achieve.

A both / and approach to degree and short-form learning not only ensures alignment with important, in-demand skills that are valuable today, but positions learners to continue to grow their foundational skills over time in a way that stays relevant to their unique career trajectories. 

Although employers show strong demand for so-called “soft” skills, working adults may not see an immediate connection between these skills and the “hard,” more technical skills required for their next target role. In reality, soft skills are foundational to building toward competencies and certainly toward career advancement in a skills-based economy, and higher ed and employers can make that connection clear.  Paul Freedman explained: 

Soft skills aren’t soft. They’re uniquely human. In the age of automation, that is what humans do: The jobs that require human skills. The robots will do the rest. —The need that we have seen, however, is helping employees understand their necessity. The narrative learners hear is around the job outcome. People-managing skills are as important as the tech skills and as an ecosystem we need to communicate that better.”

The future is bright for higher education to shape a socially mobile future. “It’s amazing to see the creative energy and focus at ASU+GSV across the education ecosystem on improving the learning experience for working adults,” Guild Senior Vice President Geoff Watson summed up. “We have made significant strides in serving this ‘new traditional’ population, and still have much further to go.”

Collaborators in the opportunity ecosystem contribute uniquely toward a shared goal of increasing social mobility, unique value —and have unique reasons for participating. 

 “When I think about ‘the why’ and especially ‘the why’ in a place like Guild, where we’re trying to bridge the gap between employers and academic partners, it’s really about finding these moments in a multi-sided marketplace that are a win for everyone involved,” Emily Scheines said. In a place where we can do right by students, save money for employers, and bring more students with amazing learning under their belts to our academic partners, that feels like a good reason to get out of bed every day.”