10/28/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Workplace Moneyball -- Your Best Players Aren't Who You Think They Should Be

An old friend who has taught at leading journalism schools tells me the traditional way to write a story about an issue is to find a face.

So consider Michaela Jane, a forty-something single mother of two, who has worked as a frontline care provider at a major health system. She graduated high school, but life got in the way of college. She has been a model worker for the better part of the last decade, but she lacks the formal education needed to qualify for that promotion for which bosses have repeatedly told her she would be great.

Michaela is fictional but in many ways she is very real. There are millions of Michaelas -- diligent, proven workers in need of credentials or skills to qualify for that next step up the economic ladder. The numbers are staggering: Nearly 44 million working adults in our country have no college credentials, according to the US Census.

The reality is that this population, and the kind of education the Michaelas need, are largely ignored in all the hand-wringing about the rising cost of higher education and about whether our colleges are preparing students adequately for work.

And yet the irony is that Michaela represents an enormous untapped opportunity for our higher education system to both rethink what it does and to serve the 71 percent of employers who reported in a recent survey that they would prefer to develop and promote employees from within.

There are certainly programs and dedicated educators committed to helping this massive, underserved population, but they are in no way reaching the millions of workers in need of postsecondary credentials. What I am saying is it is time to bring the same level of focused attention to these adults as we do to our traditional coming-of-age students. The net result will be millions of better educated, more productive, and happier Michaelas -- meaning higher productivity and greater revenues for business.

There are plenty of examples of programs out there already to get the conversation started, including our own efforts at College for America. While I am a proud of what we have done here, my point is not to promote the school but rather to share our model. It is not just a reform of the old system but something completely new, designed specifically for the Michaelas of the country.

Our goal is nothing short of making college accessible and meaningful to busy working adults who are not being served by traditional programs. In less than two years, we have been developing competency-based, project-based education -- working with 75 companies and more than 1,000 of their employees.

This model is built on three key pillars:

1) Relevant education: Our curriculum is driven by the needs of industry rather than the expertise of faculty. For example, before developing our healthcare programs, we studied what industry said was needed and found 50 competencies present across a broad range of jobs. We designed our degrees with those skills in mind.

2) Cost realignment: In our model, we have partnered with employers who usually pick up the cost of tuition -- which is $2,500 a year. The return is happier, more engaged, and more highly skilled workers. This model scratches that nagging workforce development itch and makes employers an active partner rather than just a passive, unsatisfied recipient. For the workers, higher education becomes a perk rather than a cost, relieving a major obstacle to attaining the needed skills to move up in their careers.

3) Competency versus hours: Students move on in our program when they have mastered competencies rather than simply fulfilled class hours. Workers who already possess the skills often progress rapidly.

These are among a handful of new approaches that are used to actively pursue Michaelas, letting them (and their employers) know that they are valued and have untapped potential.

In the classic baseball book and movie Moneyball, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) builds a winning baseball team by eschewing the high-glamor, high-priced players and instead studying player data to determine who together would make the best team. It was the baseball "grunts," seasoned players, and solid hitters with no home-run potential who got picked up. By focusing on data and the potential of what more these ignored-but-proven players could do, and giving them the tools and coaching they need to work together flawlessly, he creates a line-up that breaks the league's consecutive-game winning streak record.

If college graduates are the draft picks, the Michaelas (whatever their names are really) are the bench players -- the proven commodity. It's time to let them swing away so that their employers, and our economy, can win. But first, we need to put a bat -- or in this case, higher education--in their hands.