In recent months, we have witnessed the success of books and articles predicting massive shifts in the way students will experience and complete post-secondary education. Costs will be reduced and outcomes improved, writers argue, when higher ed is unbundled, meaning students pick and choose from a degree’s component parts. Career advancers, unburdened by general education requirements or a fixed course of study, will acquire skills and badges in real-time. The value of the degree, as a curated set of academic experiences, will diminish.
We see the future somewhat differently. It is true that the degree, as a measure of workforce readiness, faces unprecedented skepticism. Students and employers are rebelling against an opaque curation process that undermines choice and drives up cost. But wholesale unbundling of higher education overlooks the real-world demands of higher education’s consumers—students and employers. Unbundling fails to account for the diversity within higher education, the breadth of institutional objectives and learner expectations.
While the structure and order of experiences that comprise a degree will need to look quite different from the traditional model, we believe a college’s ability to curate learning experiences remains critical. An increasingly adult student population will not enter college as Jean Piaget’s “empty vessels” to be filled with knowledge. In order to respond to the needs of this student population, universities will have to create accelerated pathways for students with work experience and job skills. Seat-time requirements will need to be rethought as courses—and financial aid—are decoupled from the credit hour. Busy adult learners will expect custom, guided academic programs that help them accomplish their career goals.
Likewise, employers still value a degree for more than its component parts. The intellectual and vocational exploration enabled by an academic environment matters. Employers are fast partnering with colleges and universities. Why? To develop programs that ensure students can demonstrate learning through projects that reflect how competencies are used in the real world. Employers care about more than skills. They value degrees because the experiences universities curate can signal professional disposition, higher-level critical thinking, the ability to connect disparate areas of knowledge and disciplined time management.
So what does a curated degree of the future look like?
The success of short-term immersive programs or “coding academies” may provide a window into this future. Most coding academies offer unbundled courses, but it is their immersive, curated programs that are proving to be career game-changers while driving intense student demand and interest from policymakers. General Assembly, for instance, succeeds because it curates academic pathways that cultivate non-cognitive capabilities like perseverance and collaboration in addition to teaching technical skills such as coding and data science. By helping students not only acquire specific short-term skills but also develop a greater capacity for ongoing personal development, boot camps solve a problem for employers while sending a powerful signal about the long-term potential of their graduates.
As a curator, General Assembly also removes the guesswork for job seekers who want to understand the skills that employers value. Today, employers lack the ability to measure and authenticate skills and competencies at scale, and career advancers often lack visibility into the demands of employers. The university-curator of the future will play a critical intermediary role, helping students to not only identify the competencies that matter but also to discover the most efficient pathway to acquire the “bundle” that employers seek.
Universities that thrive in this new era will embrace their role as curator and translator. They will integrate best-in-class programs that are responsive to the workforce needs of the time. They will develop digital, clickable credentials that more clearly convey the unique skills and competencies that make up a degree.
The foundation for such a change is already taking shape. Consider recent policy shifts. The U.S. Department of Education’s EQUIP program may establish a new role for nontraditional, unaccredited education programs. In the last two years, the Department has also approved federal aid eligibility for academic programs that no longer rely on the credit hour—a unique form of competency-based education called direct assessment. But university-based innovation is not limited to degrees. Last October, the Texas state college system received approval for a 27-credit program in electrical and computer systems. The self-paced program allows students to earn a certificate in two semesters or less.
The drivers of change are undeniable and irreversible. College costs are making higher education unattainable for many at a time when society can’t afford to have higher education become a luxury for the few. Studies predict a shortage of five million college-educated workers by 2020. Employers demand post-secondary credentials for jobs that previously required only a high school diploma. Technology will continue to shape the delivery of higher education.
But unbundling the degree at the course level may not be the most effective way to achieve those goals, especially for adult learners juggling real-life demands at home and the office. The typical college student today is older, working full- or part-time, has more demands on her schedule, and needs a trusted partner to help her with the most efficient path from where she is to where she wants to go. By curating an educational experience that is aligned with the demands of the workforce, we can increase the value of the degree and save students time and money. Higher value and lower cost: that’s the real paradigm shift we need in higher education.
Mike Buttry is the Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications for Capella Education Company.
Matthew Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment, co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard and an assistant research professor at Arizona State University.