The college degree dates back well into 13th century medieval Europe. Then, as now, the degree served as a kind of universal benchmark that societies used to signify when a person attained a level of mastery over a specific topic or skill. But as timeless as the degree might feel, it's finally beginning to show its age.
The trends shaping the modern world are beginning to challenge the degree’s future usefulness and value. Luckily, the reforms outlined below hope to drag the degree into the digital world and breath new life into the defining tool of our educational system.
Modern challenges strangling the education system
High school graduates are entering a higher education system that's failing to live up to the promises it delivered to past generations. In particular, today's higher education system is struggling with how to address these key vulnerabilities:
- Students need to pay significant costs or go into significant debt (often both) to afford their degrees;
- Many students drop out before completing their degree either due to affordability issues or a limited support network;
- Attaining a university or college degree no longer guarantees a job after graduation due to the shrinking labor demands of a tech-enabled private sector;
- The value of a degree is declining as ever higher numbers of university or college graduates enter the labor market;
- The knowledge and skills taught at schools becomes outdated shortly after (and in some cases before) graduation.
These challenges aren't necessarily new, but they are intensifying both due to the pace of change brought on by technology, as well as the myriad trends outlined in the previous chapter. Luckily, this state of affairs need not last forever; in fact, change is already underway.
Dragging the cost of education to zero
Free post-secondary education doesn't just have to be a reality for Western European and Brazilian students; it should be a reality for all students, everywhere. Achieving this goal will involve reforming public expectations around the costs of higher education, integrating modern technology into the classroom, and political will.
The reality behind the education sticker shock. Compared to the other costs of life, US parents have seen the cost of educating their children increase from 2% in 1960 to 18% in 2013. And according to the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, the US is the most expensive country to be a student.
Some believe that investments in teachers' salaries, new technology, and rising administrative costs are to blame for the ballooning tuition rates. But behind the headlines, are these costs real or inflated?
In truth, for most US students, the net price of higher education has remained largely constant over the last few decades, adjusting for inflation. The sticker price, however, has exploded. Obviously, it's the latter price that everyone focuses on. But if the net price is so much lower, why bother listing the sticker price at all?
Explained in a clever NPR podcast, schools advertise the sticker price because they are competing with other schools to attract the best students possible, as well as the best possible student mix (i.e. students of different genders, races, ethnicities, incomes, geographic origins, etc.). Think about it this way: By promoting a high sticker price, schools can offer discount scholarships based on need or merit to attract a range of students to attend their school.
It’s classic salesmanship. Promote a $40 product as an expensive $100 product, so that people think it has value, then offer a 60 percent off sale to entice them to buy the product—add three zeros to those numbers and you now have a sense of how tuitions are now sold to students and their parents. The high tuition prices make a university feel exclusive, while the large discounts they offer not only make students feel like they can afford to attend, but special and excited for being courted by this ‘exclusive’ institution.
Of course, these discounts don't apply to students who come from high-income families, but for the majority of US students, education's real cost is far lower than what's advertised. And while the US might be the most adept at using this marketing ploy, know that it's commonly used throughout the international education market.
Technology brings down education costs. Whether it's virtual reality devices making classroom and home education more interactive, artificial intelligence (AI) powered teaching assistants or even advanced software that automates most administrative elements of education, the technological and software innovations oozing into the education system will not only improve the access and quality of education but also bring down its costs considerably. We'll explore these innovations further in later chapters for this series.
The politics behind free education. When you take the long view of education, you'll see that at one point high schools used to charge a tuition. But eventually, once having a high school diploma became a necessity to succeed in the labor market and once the percentage of people who had a high school diploma reached a certain level, the government made the decision to view the high school diploma as a service and made it free.
These same conditions are emerging for the university bachelor's degree. As of 2016, the bachelor’s degree has become the new high school diploma in the eyes of hiring managers, who increasingly see a degree as a baseline to recruit against. Likewise, the percentage of the labor market that now have a degree of some kind is reaching a critical mass to the point where it’s barely being viewed as a differentiator amongst applicants.
For these reasons, it won’t be long before enough of the public and private sector begin to view the university or college degree as a necessity, prompting their governments to rethink how they fund higher ed. This could involve:
- Mandating tuition rates. Most state governments already have some control over how much schools can raise their tuition rates. Legislating a tuition freeze, along with pumping in new public money to increase bursaries, will likely be the first method governments use to make higher ed more affordable.
- Loan forgiveness. In the US, total student loan debt is over $1.2 trillion, more than credit card and auto loans, second only to mortgage debt. Should the economy take a serious slide, it’s very possible governments may increase their student loan forgiveness programs to ease the debt burden of millennials and centennials to help boost consumer spending.
- Payment schemes. For governments who want to fund their higher education systems, but aren’t ready to bite the bullet just yet, partial funding schemes are beginning to pop up. Tennessee is proposing free tuition for two years of technical school or community college through its Tennessee Promise program. Meanwhile, in Oregon, the government is proposing a Pay It Forward program where students upfront front tuition but agree to pay a percentage of their future earnings for a limited number of years to pay for the next generation of students.
- Free public education. Eventually, governments are going to press ahead and fund students full tuition, as Ontario, Canada, announced in March 2016. There, the government now pays the full tuition for students who come from households making less than $50,000 per year, and will also cover tuition for at least half of those coming from households making less than $83,000. As this program matures, it's only a matter of time before the government covers public university tuitions across the income range.
By the late 2030s, governments across much of the developed world will begin making higher ed tuition free for all. This development will substantially lower the costs of higher ed, lower dropout rates, and reduce societal inequality overall by improving access to education. However, free tuition isn’t enough to fix our education system.
Making degrees temporary to increase their currency
As mentioned earlier, the degree was introduced as a tool to verify the expertise of an individual through a credential imparted by a respected and established third party. This tool allowed employers to trust in the ability of their new hires by trusting instead in the reputation of the institution that trained said hires. The utility of the degree is the reason it's lasted for close to a millennia already.
However, the classical degree wasn't designed to cope with the challenges it's facing today. It was designed to be exclusive and to certify the education of relatively stable forms of knowledge and skills. Instead, their widening availability has led to a drop in their value amid an increasingly competitive labor market, while the accelerating pace of technology has outdated the knowledge and skills gained from higher ed shortly after graduation.
The status quo can’t last for much longer. And that’s why part of the answer to these challenges lies in redefining the authority degrees provide their bearer and the promises they present to the public and private sector at large.
An option that some experts advocate for is placing an expiry date on degrees. Basically, this means a degree will no longer become valid after a set number of years without the degree holder participating in a set number of workshops, seminars, classes, and tests to recertify that they have retained a certain level of mastery over their field of study and that their knowledge of that field is current.
This expiry-based degree system has a number of advantages over the existing classical degree system. For example:
- In the instance where an expiry-based degree system is legislated before higher ed becomes free for all, then it would substantially reduce the upfront net cost of degrees. In this scenario, universities and college can charge a reduced fee for the degree and then make up the costs during the recertification process people would have to participate in every few years. This essentially transforms education into a subscription-based business.
- Recertifying degree holders will force the educational institutions to work closer with the private sector and government-sanctioned certification bodies to actively update their curriculums to better teach to marketplace realities.
- For the degree holder, if they decide to make a career change, they can better afford to learn a new degree since they won't be as burdened by the tuition debt of their previous degree. Likewise, if they aren't impressed with the knowledge or skills or reputation of a particular school, they can more easily afford to switch schools.
- This system also ensures that people's skills are regularly updated to meet the expectations of the modern labor market. (Note that degree holders can opt to recertify themselves yearly, instead of just during the year before their degree expires.)
- Adding the degree recertification date alongside the graduation date on one's resumé will become an added differentiator that can help job seekers stand out in the job market.
- For employers, they can make safer hiring decisions by assessing how current is the knowledge and skill set of their applicants.
- The limited costs of recertifying a degree can also become a feature future employers pay for as an employment benefit to attract qualified workers.
- For the government, this will gradually decrease the societal cost of education as universities and colleges will more aggressively compete with one another for recertification business, both through increased investments in new, cost-saving teaching technology and partnerships with the private sector.
- Moreover, an economy that features a national workforce with an up-to-date level of education will eventually outperform an economy whose workforce training is behind the times.
- And finally, on a societal level, this degree expiry system will create a culture that views lifelong learning as a necessary value to become a contributing member of society.
Similar forms of degree recertification are already fairly common in certain professions, such as law and accounting, and are already a challenging reality for immigrants looking to get their degrees recognized in a new country. But should this idea gain traction by the late 2020s, education will quickly enter a whole new era.
Revolutionizing credentialing to compete with the classical degree
Expiring degrees aside, you can't talk about innovation in degrees and certificates without discussing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) bringing education to the masses.
MOOCs are courses delivered in part or entirely online. Since the early 2010s, companies like Coursera and Udacity partnered with dozens of reputable universities to publish hundreds of courses and thousands of hours of taped seminars online for the masses to gain access to education from some of the best teachers in the world. These online courses, the support tools they come with, and the progress tracking (analytics) baked into them, are a truly novel approach to improve education and will only improve along with the technology that powers it.
But for all the early hype behind them, these MOOCs eventually revealed their one Achilles heel. By 2014, media reported that engagement with MOOCs, among students, had begun to drop off. Why? Because without these online courses leading to a real degree or credential—one recognized by the government, education system and future employers—the incentive to complete them just wasn't there. Let's be honest here: Students are paying for a degree more so than an education.
Luckily, this limitation is slowly starting to be addressed. Most educational institutions initially took a tepid approach to MOOCs, some engaging with them to experiment with online education, while others saw them as a threat to their degree printing business. But in recent years, some universities have begun integrating MOOCs into their in-person curriculum; for example, over half of MIT's students are required to take a MOOC as a part of their course.
Alternatively, a consortium of large private companies and educational institutions are beginning to band together to break colleges' monopoly on degrees by creating a new form of credentialing. This involves the creation of digital credentials such as Mozilla’s online badges, Coursera’s course certificates, and Udacity’s Nanodegree.
These alternative credentials are often backed by Fortune 500 corporations, in collaboration with online universities. The benefit of this approach is that the certificate gained teaches the exact skills employers are looking for. Moreover, these digital certifications indicate the specific knowledge, skills and experience the graduate gained from the course, supported by links to electronic evidence of how, when, and why they were awarded.
Overall, free or nearly-free education, degrees with expiry dates, and the broader recognition of online degrees will have a huge and positive impact on the accessibility, prevalence, value and practicality of higher education. That said, none of these innovations will achieve their full potential unless we also revolutionize our approach to teaching—conveniently, this is a topic we'll explore in the next chapter focusing on the future of teaching.