The cost of traditional higher education has been rising steadily and shows no sign of slowing down. Much of the problem is driven by simple market-based economics — demand is outstripping supply. Many jobs that pay good wages require a college degree, and our academic institutions are the gatekeepers to those essential credentials. To slow down the rising costs, we need to increase supply.

Other cost increases are driven by the need to upgrade technology systems at our traditional colleges and universities, many of which are old and clunky and lack sufficient bandwidth for 21st century instructional models. It also costs more to hire qualified staff, notably IT experts, who can often earn far more in commercial sector jobs. A researcher who could be working for a pharmaceutical company will earn less money at an academic institution, which relies on grant money or government funding. And finally, the cost of housing has surged in recent years, notably in cities like New York, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco, adding to students' financial burden.

Fortunately, technology is helping to create new pathways that can make education more accessible and less costly. We are creating tools, platforms, and opportunities for people, regardless of their location or financial status, to access information and get the education they need. Technology has begun to change our learning model, to make it more agile. It doesn't mean we are replacing the traditional, on-campus experience, but we are providing alternatives.

Online content is the centerpiece of the new agile model. We can now provide remote access to the same professors and peer groups that are available on-campus. We can even free up instructors to work remotely, adding flexibility and potential cost savings. This model won't completely replicate the on-campus experience, but it is more affordable and accessible. Allowing students the flexibility to take online courses is definitely the way of the future. In the years ahead, the vast majority of college students will participate in online learning to some extent.
In order to meet the growing demand for remote instruction, professors and other academic staff will need to change the way they teach. A traditional talking head lecture is no longer effective, and instructors who fail to engage their students with modern technology will fail. They must prepare to use collaboration tools, breakout rooms, and video to provide a more interactive student experience. Students today have grown up with online tools -- many were using technology even before they began to read. They bring their computers and devices into the classroom. Failing to engage them through these tools is a missed opportunity.

We also need to provide streamlined educational options that enable students to launch careers with fewer years of formal instruction. More targeted programs, focused on knowledge applicable to specific professions, can prepare a student for a job more quickly than a traditional four-year liberal arts curriculum. This won't be the right choice for all students. Many will still prefer the traditional model. But the lower cost option would make higher education accessible to far more students.

Corporate partnerships and apprenticeships can also create more direct pathways from high school to the workplace. Today, some large high tech companies are hiring talented high school graduates, training them to write software code, while also encouraging workers to continue their education and build new skills as needed. IBM, for example, has launched a "new collar jobs" initiative, which combines professional careers with trade work in apprenticeships that reduce the pressure to get a bachelor's degree. Since technology moves so fast, continuous on-the-job training today can provide more valuable skills than four years of traditional undergraduate study. Students who postpone their education to begin working can often count on their employers to pay some of the cost if they choose to return to school. And their work experience should help them choose courses with the most relevance to their careers.

Deep, specialized skills require constant upgrades and continuous learning. Our academic institutions can help by offering blended curricula and real-world experience that better align with business needs. A good example of this is the master's degree in human resources management and development offered at New York University's School of Professional Studies. Two-thirds of the curriculum is focused on building foundational business skills, including business strategy, financial management, information technology, and analytics. The remainder of the curriculum is concentrated on HR specializations. Internships and capstone research projects provide hands-on business and HR experience.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see really interesting innovation happening at many universities, though the pace of change varies widely, depending on the leadership of those universities. More forward looking institutions are shifting to a hybrid instruction model, matching the powerhouse of content creation, research, and thought leadership with the latest technology platforms and reaching out to much broader populations. Agile, flexible, and modern higher education offerings that transcend geographies and economic barriers will bring better career opportunities to more students, bridging the growing gap between supply and demand.

Innovative new curriculum and delivery strategies, along with more targeted skills development that meets current business needs, can help students better prepare for productive careers. By engaging businesses earlier and more directly in the educational process, we can help young people launch careers more quickly and reduce their educational expenses in the process.

Anna Tavis

Associate Professor of Human Capital Management, NYU

Dr. Anna Tavis is an Associate Professor of Human Capital Management at NYU, senior lecturer at Latin American Business School, Senior Fellow with The Conference Board and an Executive Director for the Innovation Radar Network with Executive Networks. In addition, Anna is a Senior Editor of People+Strategy Journal a publication of HRPS, SHRM's Executive network.