Can Associations Corner the Education Market?

A look at some of the roles associations can play as the price and demand for traditional higher education continue to climb.

Can associations ever take the place of colleges?

This was a question posed recently by Jeff Cobb, managing director and cofounder of Tagoras.

Imagine filling current skills gaps across occupations, job titles, and industry sectors by leveraging the power of trusted organizations that have been on top of their fields for years.

With the rising costs of higher education—college tuition costs have increased by more than 500 percent over the last 28 years—and growing skepticism that the price may not be worth it, the idea of a traditional college education is experiencing somewhat of a backlash and is opening a potential opportunity for associations.

“There is a lot of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth these days about the future of associations,” Cobb wrote. “About whether membership is still a viable model. About whether associations are even ‘relevant’ any more. Personally, I don’t think there is even the slightest question of relevancy. I think it is just a matter of recognizing and embracing the absolutely critical role that associations play in the American—and, increasingly, global —education system. We don’t often talk about associations that way, but we should. Indeed, I’d argue we must.”

Cobb suggested associations can play a key role in competency-based education, for example.

Many associations already offer apprentice programs (a few examples) that allow individuals to develop skills or become certified to begin careers in farming, manufacturing, engineering, and so on—valuable programs in a country with a growing skills gap.

In their book A+ Solution: How America’s Professional Societies and Trade Associations Can Solve the Nation’s Workforce Skills Crisis, John Bell, founder and CEO of online-career-center provider Boxwood Technology, Inc., and Christine Smith, Boxwood president and COO, suggested leveraging the professional development offerings of the tens of thousands of U.S. professional societies and trade associations to help close America’s skills gap.

“Across the U.S., over 70,000 nonprofit professional societies and trade associations focus on gathering and disseminating research and education for their field,” Bell and Smith wrote. “What would happen if we could give millions of Americans access to training, education, and career support resources developed and run by these associations? What if we used these programs as vehicles to get people back to work? Imagine filling current skills gaps across occupations, job titles, and industry sectors by leveraging the power of trusted organizations that have been on top of their fields for years.”

Associations also play a role in fostering mentoring programs, which can help individuals develop and build upon skills throughout their careers.

Smith told Associations Now earlier this week that there is a new push for mentoring programs, especially as baby boomers begin to leave the work force, but associations can struggle managing such programs. They may often have trouble, for example, with matching mentors and mentees.

One way to alleviate this particular issue is to automate the matching process—something the CFA Society of Chicago did when it created a virtual mentoring program for members using LinkedIn.

When considering how associations can supplement or even replace college, it may be beneficial to also consider how they can adapt to some of the current disrupters of the higher education system.

Take massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for example. By virtue of being free and open to anyone around the world, MOOCs present an opportunity to think about the format and delivery of association educational offerings, suggested Shelly Alcorn, CAE, of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, at the ASAE NextGen Summit in Reno, Nevada last fall.

If MOOC providers such as Coursera turn education into a fundamental right that can be consumed at any time day or night, for example, “How are you going to charge $190 for a 90 minute session and a lunch?” she asked.

Do you think associations can take the place of college? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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