Digital tools that directly test and train individuals’ competencies are dramatically changing hiring and higher education. Technology platforms that boast robust analytic capabilities are increasingly being adopted by employers to securely and efficiently verify candidates’ fit through a wide assortment of skills-based evaluations, with 71 percent of North American employers utilizing pre-hire assessments during the screening process. In tandem, the push toward online learning and alternative credentialing in the last decade have spurred a growth of non-institutional postsecondary education providers that challenge the predominance of the traditional academic degree. The impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic on higher education and the labor market at large also present new challenges, and possibilities, for the role of technology in bridging gaps between learning and employment opportunities.

In 2017, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) set out to explore the growing potential of digital assessment and learning by creating a new program with the specific goal of connecting marginally engaged youth, or “opportunity youth,” to employment and education. Titled FEATuring YOU, this program is unique in the soft skills assessment and training space in that it is developed and managed by a nonprofit university. It uses a set of five validated, retail-based skills assessments and one game-based assessment developed in-house to test six soft skills: communication, critical thinking, customer service, adaptability, drive for results, and problem solving. Understanding that simply evaluating skills will not necessarily lead youth directly to meaningful work and education opportunities, FEATuring YOU also contains in-platform learning modules and shareable digital badges for users who master the competencies that FEATuring YOU tests and trains.

While FEATuring YOU was conceived and created before the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for a tool connecting marginalized youth to employment is greater now than ever. Young workers, and particularly youth of color and those in poverty, are often the first to be let go during an economic downturn, and recent unemployment data suggest this is certainly the case during COVID.  At the same time, the pandemic-induced lockdown provides an opportunity for unemployed workers to invest in new skills. Disconnected youth are no exception to this, and there is opportunity for them and their advocates to leverage amid the rapid switch to online learning and digital credentialing. Both FEATuring YOU’s potential to connect opportunity youth to education and employment opportunities and its upskilling features are especially timely as more traditional pathways to employment may be particularly inaccessible to its target users. 

Ithaka S+R conducted a case study of FEATuring YOU to document the development and implementation of the tool, understand its value and potential for impact in the field, and make recommendations for future developments. We conducted in-depth interviews with more than 20 individuals involved in the ideation and creation of FEATuring YOU, as well as experts in skill development and digital credentials targeted towards opportunity youth, and reviewed internal documentation from SNHU regarding the tool’s development and deployment. The report also provides a literature review of relevant publications on soft skills assessment and badging and some key learnings from FEATuring YOU that can be applied to similar endeavors in the field. The report concludes with a discussion of FEATuring YOU, the role of digital assessment, and the role of innovation in higher education in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As many prospective students are deciding that college can waitsome out of their own volition, but many others out of economic necessityinstitutions must reassess how they can best serve young Americans, and especially youth in traditionally underserved populations. Scientifically validated, rigorously researched, and fully implemented tools like FEATuring YOU thus become especially interesting models of alternative learning and credentialing for the field. To better serve and support their students and communities during these challenging times, institutions of higher education must innovate around their use of digital tools and reimagine the traditional route from education to employment.