12/06/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Harnessing 'School as a Service' For Middle-Skills Education

There is a debate surrounding the higher education system in the United States. The country is in a decision paralysis about what we want to learn, how we should learn, and what it should cost. The crux of the argument seems to be whether the majority should learn how to generally write well, speak well and think analytically, or to learn how to perform the specific skills needed to find gainful employment.

Ironically, we often ignore the outside influences that threaten to make this decision for us: Education technology (specifically online learning), demographic shifts, dwindling government funding, and the pressures that accompany high unemployment rates. Though we can't slow or stop these forces, a new model known as 'School as a Service' is helping schools assess, finance, develop, recruit for, market and support new programs designed to be agile enough to adapt to the ever-changing landscape.

The School as a Service model works by leveraging technologies and processes that are not available to most schools. Highly targeted marketing and analytics, alternative educational delivery methods, efficient administration, and curriculum development tied to workforce needs are all rolled into one turnkey solution that can be implemented in a fraction of the time it traditionally takes to roll out new initiatives.

However, U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially for middle-skills jobs -- jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Worse, vacancies are being left unfilled because of a lack of qualified, trained candidates.

So can School as a Service work for middle-skills jobs which often involve specific hands-on skill training and for which the value is in abilities and certification, not the prestige of the school?

The obvious place to start is the community college system, which has always been driven by affordability and workforce development, but unfortunately bound to traditional course structures and enrollment rates that are almost entirely exposed to employment rates. In order for community colleges to become successful drivers of the economy by developing an employable workforce, they must hand-off marketing and student inquiries, student admissions and enrollment, payment processing, research and development, and management of the programs to outside vendors. This will free resources to focus on the core competency: serving as a hub for affordable skill-based and job-focused learning in a community.

The benefits are self-evident. Schools will be able to attract more students who recognize the value of a skills-based education, but are also wary of the value of a community college degree. They will be able to ramp up their online offerings without the cost and expertise needed to develop and manage them. And finally, they will be able to save money on their internal costs on marketing, admissions, and student support.

By adding new and diverse degree, certification and continuing education programs to their portfolio through the School as a Service model, the system can be better insulated against employment rates, more financially viable, and will be able to support crucial industries, such as advanced manufacturing, energy technology, healthcare and information technology.

It is important to note that vocational education is inherently different from a liberal arts degree. Without hands-on learning components, the value of vocational education is lost. In fact, new evidence suggests that community college students who enrolled in online courses -- controlling for various factors that tend to predict success -- were more likely to fail or drop out of the courses than those who took the same courses in person. However, there was no a gap in completion between those enrolled in hybrid (partly online and partly in-person) courses and those enrolled in-person courses.

The hybrid model of vocational education is something for which School as a Service is built. We cannot expect every community college to develop a successful hybrid learning environment overnight. However, both the logistics and online course content, two major obstacles for community colleges, can be handled seamlessly by firms with experience in online reporting and management.

In addition, this model mirrors with regulatory trends. Better alignment and increased agility to market forces, especially job vacancies, will result in higher rates of course completion and placement. A more streamlined student administration system can also absorb the administrative burden of employment verification surveys, alleviating a potential strain on already limited resources.

With global education expenditures projected to top $6.7 trillion by 2017, there's a tremendous opportunity for vocational education to take a leading role. As higher education institutions become increasingly comfortable with outsourcing key software and businesses services, technology-enabled services have become a viable, cost-effective alternative to in-house operations like marketing, recruitment, student advising, and blended course development.

With the future uncertain, the strategic levers that colleges do or do not pull will greatly determine their fortunes.

Avi Yashchin is the CEO of CleanEdison, a vocational education company that focuses on the clean energy industry. An outspoken advocate for clean technology, building science, and skills training, Avi applies his expertise in finance to provide innovative solutions for underserved populations looking to enter the clean energy industry. Prior to founding CleanEdison, Avi spent seven years in finance where he served as Vice President in the Global Credit Products group at a major investment bank.