As our economy enters a new era, so too must the world of postsecondary education.

Twenty-five years after the Internet became commercially available, post-high school learning—which for adults is now truly often a life-long endeavor—is now a diverse ecosystem of options. Beginning in 2020, the digital transformation of the economy and labor market took a giant leap forward. In parallel, online education went mainstream as educational providers at all levels— including colleges and universities—were forced to experiment with remote learning, long a preferred vehicle for part-time students engaged in lifelong learning.

The economic dislocations of the pandemic shined a spotlight on the urgent need for worker reskilling and upskilling, which has become a top policy priority for cities, states and the federal government. This direction is also fueled by a wave of new coalitions, non-profits and philanthropic investments. For many years prior to the pandemic, degree completion for the 36 million U.S. adults who have some college but no degree had been a major policy focus. Adults over the age of 25 represent roughly 40 percent of enrollment in U.S. higher education. That’s nearly 8 million learners. These are big numbers—making educating this group a societal and economic imperative, as well as a very large market opportunity.

During the pandemic, though, 37 percent of adults pursuing education abandoned their educational goals due to financial hardships, changes at work, or lack of access to programs, based on public opinion polling from Strada Education Network—a situation characterized as a “national crisis.” The latest enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows adult undergraduate enrollment in steep decline. For example, community college enrollment declined 11 percent in spring 2021 compared to the year prior. The California Community College system alone lost 190,000 students between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020.

Meanwhile, demand is booming for flexible, digital offerings. In Coursera’s second quarter 2021 results reported last week, the company reported revenue growth of 38 percent on the strength of global demand for reskilling, and “sustained demand for career-oriented professional certificates targeted at entry-level digital jobs.” Similarly, online education company 2U, which partners with many leading universities, reported 36 percent growth in its “alternative credentials” business segment in its most recent quarter. The company’s recently announced $800 million acquisition of EdX reflects the growing demand for and value of short-form learning, online courses, and microcredentials. Demand is also surging for microcredentials awarded by companies, industry associations, and other non-institutional providers, which have increased around 75 percent over the last year.

Read the full article about digital transformation by Sean Gallagher at EdSurge.