Impact Stories
December 28, 2021 – Education

Unlocking the potential of every learner

Unlocking the potential of every learner
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Unlocking the potential of every learner

Over the last two years we have seen learners, workers, families, and educators encounter seemingly insurmountable barriers in education. They responded with resiliency, ingenuity, and innovation. As we said in our 2020 year-in-review, we knew this perseverance and creativity would persist throughout the pandemic and beyond. 

People want innovative solutions that empower learners to discover, develop, and apply their unique aptitudes. Long before COVID-19 shut down schools and universities, it was increasingly clear that a top-down, one-size-fits-all system was leaving millions without options to help them reach their potential. 

Americans want individualized learning

While the hunger for new learning pathways was present well before the pandemic, our 2021 polling indicated that the appetite is growing stronger.

An early 2021 survey found nearly three-quarters of Americans who said they will need to learn new skills to advance in their career want to acquire those skills in a setting other than a four-year college or university. Another CKF poll found 61 percent of Americans think universities should do a better job of changing to meet students’ needs. Just 16 percent felt students needed to adjust to the “tried and tested model” of a traditional four-year college.

These findings increased our sense of urgency. Our desire to support innovative programs of all sizes to transform postsecondary education has never been greater. 

Transforming lives 

In 2021, we developed new partnerships with some of the most innovative education thinkers and doers in the country and expanded existing projects. These partners are changing the landscape of learning and helping millions of individuals unlock their potential.     

Our support helped the SkillUp Coalition identify and knock down two of the biggest barriers — self-doubt and financial pressures — that keep displaced workers from reaching their potential. The coalition, founded in 2020, also established skill-based programs that provide training and resources to help people find fulfilling careers in growing industries. Sites are up and running in CaliforniaOhioNevadaPennsylvania, and Louisiana

SkillUp empowered hundreds of thousands of displaced workers and learners like Brianna to take a next step toward a better career pathway. Brianna wanted to transition from a custodial worker to a career in information technology (IT). She had always been passionate about the field and sought a better work-life balance. She started her new career the day after graduating from Per Scholas, a nonprofit SkillUp partner that provides free IT training. 

We also continued our support of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation (MRWF), which is driving awareness of the many pathways beyond a four-year degree. 

In 2021, MRWF awarded its Work Ethic Scholarship Program to 136 individuals to pursue new learning pathways that will help them pursue their own aptitudes and passions, advance in their current profession, or find opportunities in a new one. 

This scholarship program has helped hundreds of people access new opportunities, and even pursue entrepreneurship, and the foundation continues to elevate these stories of personal transformation. Svetlana Daneva, a working mother in Boston who won a Work Ethic Scholarship this year, will use the award to advance her carpentry career. Justin Adams from East Windsor, Connecticut, is a formerly homeless person who will use his scholarship to become an HVAC technician. Prior recipients Carlynn McClelland and Veronica Knight used their awards to enter the same carpentry course in Michigan. They quickly became friends and now run home remodeling business together and are their own bosses. 

These are just a few examples of the people who are transforming their lives by discovering their aptitudes, developing new skills, and applying them in ways that improve their life and the lives of others. 

Driving new ideas

To bring forth new ideas and celebrate the people driving change, in 2021 we expanded our efforts to convene and connect scholars and social entrepreneurs. These events and discussions considered how we can better support all types of learners. 

  • At the virtual SXSW Edu Conference, our Executive Director Ryan Stowers interviewed SkillUp’s Josh Jarrett and Climb Hire’s Nitzan Pelman about the connection between work and education. In severalop-eds and on numerous podcasts, Stowers also advanced the conversation about education transformation.
  • With Jeff Selingo’s NEXT Office Hour, we hosted a series of virtual events to showcase how the country’s leading social entrepreneurs are working to transform America’s postsecondary education system. 

Human potential is limitless

Incremental change was not sufficient prior to the pandemic and it certainly is not now. Learners need transformational solutions. In a column in Governing, Stowers explained as much as 35 percent of the U.S. labor force is skills-mismatched, which limits their potential to find meaningful and fulfilling work. 

“There is a limitlessness to human potential — the capacity of all to discover, develop and deploy their unique aptitudes and gifts so they can benefit themselves and others,” Stowers said. Employers, educators, and social entrepreneurs must all play a role in transforming the learning landscape so that we can better unlock human potential. 

Our own commitment to innovation is constant. Using every tool at our disposal — partnerships, events, and opportunities for thought leadership — we will continue to advance postsecondary education transformation. We do not have all the answers. In 2022, we want to hear from any social entrepreneur interested in finding innovative solutions that help unlock the potential of every learner. Learn more about how you can partner with us, and stay tuned for more information in January. 

The Charles Koch Foundation supports educational opportunities that respect the dignity of all learners, foster a diversity of approaches, and are open to the free flow of ideas and innovation. In 2021, we also worked toward this mission through partnerships with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, the American Council on EducationThe Chronicle of Higher Education, the ASU+GSV conference, and dozens of other partners.