Companies are complaining about the skills gap. Here's how we get closer to solving it.

For most of us, the traditional notion of the "American Dream" - and what it symbolizes in countries around the world - begins with hard work and education and leads to opportunity and a flourishing future. However, in our ever-evolving global economy, the opportunities my generation had are so much more elusive for today's college-age students and young professionals, many of whom are saddled with debt and ill-equipped to launch careers to set themselves up for a successful future.

A college degree costs 14 times more today than it did in 1965, putting the first step of the American dream out of many people's grasp. We are the only industrialized nation with a student debt as high as $1.5 trillion. Nearly half of recent college graduates, ages 22 to 27, were underemployed as of March 2016. This reality makes it difficult for the average college graduate to pay monthly rent and bills, let alone repay school loans.

At the same time, according to Career Builder, about 50% of employers say they have job vacancies, but can't find qualified candidates to fill them. And, for in-demand jobs, considered the best in America, such as data scientist, there are even more job openings and even fewer qualified candidates. This demand for people with key knowledge and professional skills will keep rising as economies and jobs grow more sophisticated. What's more, in the fast-paced world of constant tech innovation, there are new jobs emerging that didn't even exist a decade ago, such as data scientist and today is considered one of the best. We have to keep up with our ever-changing, digitally-driven workplace.

We are not close to meeting the critical demands of today's learners, employees and employers. Educational institutions are struggling to keep pace in the face of escalating marketplace changes and companies cannot train workers fast or cost-effectively enough to grow and remain competitive.
Lots of problems. And it's easy to make headlines about what's wrong.

But, I want to offer a new approach that we have developed along with our university partners. A practical, flexible solution that builds on massive open online courses (MOOCs) - educating millions of learners for free - and leverages the vision and talents of the best learning institutions and companies in the world.

We must face the reality that younger generations do not learn, think or behave in the same way as their predecessors. The very way in which young people learn and communicate has evolved more in the last 15 years than in the previous 570 years, as the The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity reports. And, it's an untenably high price for today's learners to even step onto the career ladder today - much less ascend it - which means we need to create multiple pathways to do so.

That is why we recently launched MicroMasters programs on edX - the next evolution in our mission to expand access to world-class higher education at a fraction of the price. Along with our university partners, we have created an entirely new category of fully-online Master's-level credentials to advance careers in the most in-demand fields, from artificial intelligence to global business management to user experience (UX) design and Android development, while also offering a new pathway to advanced study. And we are doing so affordably and at scale.

MicroMasters was originally conceived by MIT as a pilot program on edX. As hinted by the name, MicroMasters comprises about 25% to 50% of the work of a traditional Master's, and at around $1000 is a few percent of the cost. The pilot program's success demonstrates the innovative power of MicroMasters to expand access to higher education at a truly massive scale. To put this in perspective, more than 3,500 students are pursuing the MITx's Supply Chain Management MicroMasters on edX (with 27,000 students enrolled in its first course) compared to the 40 students who are admitted every year to the traditional #1 ranked residential Master's program at MIT.

It's clear that with innovative online education programs like these, more people globally are exposed to high-quality, career-relevant education that will improve their lives.

If we want the American Dream to live on, we need your help:

  • Employers, invest in your talent to offer the best, most cutting-edge professional education available and start validating nontraditional microcredentials to enable greater entry into, and advancement within, your companies;
  • Universities, embrace open online learning as a great democratizer that brings more people - regardless of socioeconomic status or background - into the educational system;
  • Learners, pursue education as a lifelong journey. Challenge yourselves to consistently learn, grow and advance;
  • Policymakers, support common-sense education policy that invests in technology-based learning, alternative education credentials, and the reduction of student debt.

The future of our students and workforce depends on it. The American dream depends on it. Our country depends on it.

Join me in this belief, and act on it.