Higher Ed Needs to Bridge the ‘App Gap’ to Reach Students

l as continual feedback from their friends and influencers— what the younger generations rely on for context—they are likely on very different wavelengths from the colleges who want them to attend and stay, training and outreach opportunities vying for their attention, and employers who need reliable entry hires.

Each generational shift suffers a cultural communication schism, noticeable at home and in school, that in the past was navigable by the time young people focused on college or career training, or entered the workforce. Today, this is not happening.

The culture that started with apps is not likely to be interested in how things were done in the past, which for many of us is still the present. They may well drop out, go into the gig economy or, because they are unaware of available jobs, go idle, likely in their parents’ homes.

Perpetuating and Creating New Equity Barriers

The disjunction between the world as it was (and is) and the world that many young people live in can be seen through an equity and access lens as one of significant barriers. If you can’t reach impacted populations or show them what is available in the way they receive and confirm information, you are setting up barriers along social, cultural, racial and economic lines.

The technologies, data, branding and user-friendly apps and websites common in consumer, commercial and some government sectors need to be used as a guide for a new breed of developers interested in the future of educational institutions, workforce agencies and foundation-funded projects. This new effort has to follow a bottom-up philosophy, driven from the point of view of the those out of work, confused about work, not knowing where to go for training, or whether to stay in college without any certain work outcomes.

The gap between the traditional practices and the social and consumer app world is serious. Simply creating app-like technology to mimic older processes is not the answer. That lowers the viability of the labor pool at a time when we can employ as many people as are trained and available for the many open skilled jobs. Not reaching people or engaging them hurts the economy as well as individual lives and regions.

Equity is more than creating more organizational programs or developing more ineffective websites without adequate measures for engaging and empowering young people who need support.

Can We Bridge the ‘App Gap’?

There is no shortage of employers using social media to recruit new hires. These employers even enlist their own young employees to tweet, post on Instagram or their favorite social media, and talk about how good it is to work at their company.

But how do you reach and motivate a 16- to 24-year old still living at home—or worse, on the street or as an itinerant—to interact with educational opportunities? We need to move from typical programs with standard outreach to the design, testing and iteration required to cross into the real app world and ramp it up in new ways with younger people in the design, development and delivery process.

It should be noted that there are powerful corporations investing in expensive solutions that could help lead the way. Among them are Salesforce, Workday, SAP, LinkedIn, Amazon, and others that have the back-office capability to power such bridge-spanning apps that live and operate in both higher education and in major employers. However, outside their sales environment, inside most of these giant cloud-based organizations there is little motivation to take on the work of bridging old processes into a new equity-focused opportunity space.

Work with Me, Not for Me

If we proceed as we are going, more agencies, foundations and community colleges will build more programs “for” disconnected youth and fail to find and engage enough young people consistently and measurably. At the same time, the social-media giants will push into this space, but will not likely have an equity mission. Meanwhile, venture firms and foundations will continue to fund startups that make reasonable products that are unlikely to push the incumbents out of the way.

The best move is a better form of cross-sector collaboration to solve a problem that all sides need solved. This will involve the best and brightest of the app developers working alongside traditional organizations willing to self-examine the complications they present to each other and the world of youth.

This is not a case where more programs and more people will make a difference. We are at a point where there should be fewer people involved and a focus on building much better industry-standards solutions, in order to reach the people who need much better information via social solutions—and who are more than willing to be part of the process to engage their peers.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.