Big QuestionsOur work related to complex challenges.

The Challenge

Re-envision the future of career colleges to deliver a high-impact, affordable education that sets students up for a better life.


A radical new business model that aligns the interests of students, employers, and institutions.

Every year, millions of students attend career colleges with hopes of landing jobs after graduation, but many end up unemployed and in debt, evidence of a significant disconnect between the goals of the students, educators, and institutions. Administrators are tasked with getting students in the door, but not getting them to graduation and students are focused on getting a degree to secure their future employment, while employers are looking for graduates who have professional skills beyond their new degrees.

In an effort to change this failing model, the ECMC Foundation engaged IDEO to help design a radical new vision for the future of career colleges. IDEO and the ECMC Foundation sought to develop a vision that could be used as a benchmark for the sector, showcasing a student-centered educational experience with a business model that aligns students, employers, and institutions as partners in advancement.

At the heart of the student experience is extended support along the learning journey, from path-finding and job placement to ongoing career support for alumni, helping students mindfully navigate their education from matriculation through employment.

Concepts illustrating milestones in the new student journey, from career navigation to alumni experience.

A key insight on the employer side was the need to prioritize the parallel development of students’ soft skills—like collaboration and communication styles—and hard skills, ensuring graduates are not only properly trained in the unique skills of their chosen career path, but also prepared to adapt to professional environments.

Institutional accountability became a core factor in the vision, directly linking the college system’s success to the student experience: as job placement improves, so do the school’s earnings and future enrollment rates. The final result is a student-centered educational experience and business model that aligns students and schools as true partners in a better life.

Key elements of IDEO’s recommendations are being implemented as pilot projects at Zenith Education Group—a nonprofit provider of career school training, funded by the ECMC Foundation.

Many students have the motivation to pursue higher education, but are dealing with external pressures and realities that make completion challenging.

In order to design a model for genuine student success, it was essential to deeply understand the needs of the non-traditional student.

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