Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University of Virginia

A New Approach to Postsecondary Education and Corporate Training That Serves All Learners

UVA Edge helps employers invest in the long-term career success of workers without college degrees. It’s an innovative one-year program in which participants gain technical expertise and strengthen fundamental ‘human skills’ while earning transferable college credits. For employers, UVA Edge provides an opportunity to develop talent, increase retention, and create a more diverse and equitable workplace.

By Stephen Yadzinski, Senior Innovation Officer, JFFLabs & Stacey Clawson, Associate Vice President, JFF

There are more than 75 million adults in the United States who graduated from high school and never earned a college degree.

Compared with college graduates, they are more likely to hold lower-wage jobs, are disproportionately Black and Latinx, and have more limited opportunities for career advancement.

It’s clear that a college degree is the best forward-looking indicator of economic advancement. Among other things, a postsecondary education offers students important foundational experiences and helps them develop enduring skills such as emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving and communication capabilities. Sometimes called “human skills,” those types of talents help people advance in their careers and make contributions to the organizations they work for.

The 75 million Americans who find themselves at a disadvantage in the labor market because they don’t have a college degree need a way to develop those and other in-demand skills. They need access to flexible postsecondary education and training programs that are built for working adults who have limited time and who may not have entered a classroom in years.

The need is more pressing now, as underserved communities deal with unemployment and long-term economic uncertainty after being disproportionately hit by the one-two punch of health care and economic crises caused by COVID-19. The country needs new approaches to postsecondary education and training to achieve an equitable economic recovery.

Stepping Up to Fulfill That Demand

JFF believes that colleges and universities have an opportunity — and perhaps an obligation — to step up and fulfill the demand for those kinds of programs. And postsecondary educators need employer partners who can help scale solutions that work.

The University of Virginia has been aware of the need for a new type of postsecondary offering for some time, seeing the issue from two perspectives: as one of the leading public university systems in the country and as one of the largest employers in the state of Virginia. UVA offers a generous employee education benefit, but that perk didn’t help many non-degreed workers, who had few learning options that enabled them to develop the skills they needed to advance in their careers.

To address that issue, the school created UVA Edge, a one-year, six-course educational program in which adults without degrees can earn 20 transferable undergraduate credits while developing the skills they need to advance and succeed. Those who complete the coursework will be prepared to take on key roles that employers often struggle to fill as their organizations grow — roles that require both technical and human skills.

The university launched UVA Edge at its flagship Charlottesville campus in January 2021, with an inaugural class of 40 students that includes UVA employees as well as members of the local community.

One of those students is Marcus Klaton, who works in the UVA facilities department.

Preparing for ‘That Next Big Promotion’

Klaton excelled in high school and made the honor roll. But the idea of a four-year college didn’t appeal to him. What he really wanted to do was work.

At one point, he enrolled in Charlottesville’s Piedmont Virginia Community College to learn new skills and improve his earning potential. A financial aid package allowed him to attend full time, and he had a strong start and earned good grades. But he was working weekends as a roofer, and taking classes full time proved to be a challenge.

“I was just struggling, and my grades were dropping, and I decided to just drop out and work full time,” he recalls.

Klaton went on to work a series of jobs and became a crew leader at a tent company for $14 an hour. But the work was seasonal, and by the time he turned 25 he was married with two kids, so he needed a job that paid more, provided benefits, and offered paid time off.

Marcus Klaton

He says he considered going back to college to get a bachelor’s degree because “that’s what you’re told you need to do to succeed.” But he knew it wouldn’t pay off right away, and he wanted an education that was “more specific to professional development.” He wanted to be active, and he knew he was good at working with his hands.

Some research led him to an apprenticeship program and a job as a pipefitter at UVA, but he knew he wasn’t done learning. He was thinking about next steps when he learned about UVA Edge.

“I saw the email come through for UVA Edge, and it was geared toward working adults just like myself,” says Klaton. “I was like, ‘This checks all the boxes.’”

Now 33, Klaton would like to be a supervisor in the facilities department within a few years, and he wants to develop the human skills he will need to do the job effectively.

“I know there are things I need to work on, as far as computer skills, reading and writing skills,” he says. “I know I need to prepare myself to get that next big promotion.”

Serving Talented Students From All Walks of Life

UVA Edge can help him do that. The curriculum emphasizes digital literacy, with instruction in technical topics like remote collaboration and digital marketing, and it’s designed to help students build critical thinking, communication, writing, and leadership capabilities.

Specifically, UVA Edge gives students opportunities to do the following:

  • Analyze and interpret quantitative data, and communicate the insights they derive from that analysis
  • Communicate persuasively using clear, concise, and effective language
  • Research and design a plan to make an organization’s operations more efficient, and pitch a proposal based on that plan using modern digital communication platforms
  • Work with human resources professionals and use cutting-edge assessment tools to develop focused leadership and collaboration skills
  • Assess the accuracy and reliability of digital information
  • Learn strategies for handling ethical dilemmas at work
  • Gain an understanding of leading technology platforms, tools, and services like Amazon Web Services, Google Analytics, and Python

Participants take six courses over 12 months. The program mixes in-person evening sessions with recorded instruction that can be accessed online at any time.

The total cost of UVA Edge is about $10,500 per student, and participants who are UVA employees can cover nearly 100 percent of that by drawing on two years’ of their employee education benefit. Those in the inaugural cohort will pay an out-of-pocket total of $300 or less.

UVA Edge’s value proposition is to offer an educational opportunity that is aligned to the needs of employers today, as well as accessible, affordable and achievable. Part of a broader strategic plan to expand the University of Virginia’s educational and career development offerings, the program honors UVA’s 200-year tradition as a public university whose mission is to help talented students from all walks of life realize their full potential.

UVA Edge is especially valuable to adult learners because it puts career exploration and navigation at the forefront of a student’s postsecondary education journey, and its curriculum is clearly designed to enable students to develop skills that employers need. Because of the program’s forward-looking emphasis on both digital literacy and human skills, participants who are already active in the workforce could see tangible results in the form of real-time advancement on the job.

Innovative programs like UVA Edge not only create new career pathways for working adults and give employers new vehicles for developing a well-rounded workforce, they also benefit colleges and universities.

Postsecondary education has been in a state of flux for years. Enrollment has been declining because prospective students are wary of the high cost of tuition and they’re concerned that their educations won’t prepare them for meaningful careers — and that trend has accelerated during the pandemic. Moreover, nontraditional students now make up nearly three-quarters of the postsecondary population, and the traditional four-year college model doesn’t work for them.

Colleges and universities can meet that change head-on by offering programs like UVA Edge, which offer flexible, personalized learning options that are available online, help them achieve identified career goals, and accommodate work and family obligations.

UVA Edge also helps the university as an employer. The staff members in the program gain new skills and grow profressionally, which is exactly the reason the university offers an education benefit to its workers.

“Providing this benefit not only engenders career advancement, it also supports talented and committed employees who are motivated to adapt to an ever-changing market and remain satisfied that UVA is a great place to work, to grow, to innovate, and to excel,” said John Kosky, UVA’s interim chief human resources officer.

Incubating and Scaling an Entrepreneurial Vision

The result of a partnership that bridges UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and its College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the UVA Edge came into being largely as a result of the advocacy and entrepreneurial vision of SCPS Dean Alex Hernandez and A&S Dean Ian Baucom.

Hernandez, who is participating in JFF’s Executive in Residence program, says he is committed to developing transformative approaches to training for adult workers who will need to continually learn new skills throughout their careers to keep pace with the ever-evolving economy. He’s guided by the belief that postsecondary credentials are part of a critical pathway for workers to gain the expertise and experience they need to build relevant and fulfilling careers.

He’d like to see a shift from growth in training models featuring “faster, cheaper” offerings that teach technical skills unlikely to hold long-term value to models that encompass an array of “faster, deeper” options. He says he envisions the latter as programs that help people build the lasting human skills that all jobs will always require, as well as the technical skills that are currently in demand.

“Working adults without degrees want opportunity,” Hernandez says. “They want meaningful career development. We can build new pathways that combine today’s digital workplace skills with the deep core skills needed for long-term success.”

JFF is committed to working with social entrepreneurs and promoting innovative, agile, scalable solutions that offer workers and learners pathways to fulfilling career and educational opportunities.

That’s why our market-facing and innovation team, JFFLabs, has partnered with Hernandez. Together, we are piloting and incubating UVA Edge, and we hope to scale this truly groundbreaking venture by working with employers who see its value and choose to incorporate it into their employee education benefits packages.

Modernizing the Postsecondary Ecosystem

The future of learning and the future of work have arrived. And now educators and employers face a collective responsibility to find new ways to equip learners with the skills they need for today’s jobs — and the jobs of the future.

JFF believes that UVA Edge offers a promising example of an innovative, future-focused program that does just that. It embodies a model that will modernize the postsecondary ecosystem, which needs transformative solutions that serve workers and learners seeking pathways to equitable economic advancement, as well as employers seeking well-rounded talent.

As Marcus Klaton might say, UVA Edge “checks all the boxes.”

JFFLabs provides a critical bridge between traditional training systems with new models and relationships to catalyze the critical work of preparing today’s workforce for the future of work, and the economy and careers of tomorrow. We do that by accelerating, incubating, advising, and investing in workforce and education innovations. This article is one in a series featuring partner impact stories and opportunities. www.jff.org/labs

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JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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JFF

JFF

JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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