“Roll Your Own” Ed: Building an Education That’s Intellectually Fulfilling and Marketable

I recently attended the Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University – a gathering of eminent thinkers, educators, and innovators who discussed the massive changes taking place in education today. The feeling was palpable: big things are on the verge of happening – factors that will disrupt the status quo for higher education and give rise to a whole new paradigm. I sat on a panel that debated the question of whether a college degree is still relevant. My take? The traditional degree must evolve to include more practical, marketable skills. If it doesn’t, massive economic and cultural changes happening beyond campus walls will give rise to a new model in which students construct their own education out of a variety of alternatives.

For decades, a college degree has represented the great equalizer in society and provided the “way-up” for generations of families. For much of its history in the U.S., a college degree was the golden ticket for any graduate entering the labor force. Several factors have now pushed the college degree out of step with the modern labor market:

  1. Debt: The increasing cost of a college education, combined with easy access to student loans means students are graduating with an enormous debt burden (the current outstanding U.S. student loan debt is over $1 trillion).
  2. Skills Gap: The stigmatization of vocational training – even as practical skills become more important and valuable – means many students graduate without the hard skills they need to be employable.
  3. Alternatives: The emergence of new, inexpensive, and flexible learning channels, combined with platforms like Pathwright and TedEd that allow any teacher to easily distribute courses, means that students can readily supplement – or substitute – traditional college education.

Over 12.3 million people are unemployed in the U.S., yet 3.7 million jobs are unfilled. Half of all recent college grads are jobless or underemployed. Something is amiss!

The ideal of democratic access to knowledge is still profoundly important, and the critical thinking produced by a well-rounded education plays a crucial role in our society. The problem is that the degree itself no longer represents any guarantee of employment for millions of students. An investment in a college degree – which can cost more than $200,000 – now has a dangerously questionable ROI.

A new world order is emerging in the education space, one in which students can select from a variety of choices to self-style an education that makes them both knowledgeable and employable. They’ll be able to select from a menu that includes offerings by traditional universities, as well as innovative new alternatives.

But what is required to make an educational experience both intellectually fulfilling and marketable? College, or its alternative, must offer the following components to deliver value to students:

  1. Intellectual Exploration + Practical Training: In order to remain relevant, higher ed needs to marry academic exploration and conceptual instruction with the practical knowledge delivered through internships, apprenticeships, and experiential learning around hard skills. Likewise, if a student decides against a four-year degree and gains their practical skills at places like Lynda.com, Treehouse, or Udemy they need a Coursera, Khan Academy, or Udacity for conceptual instruction. These new startups aren’t competitors, rather, they have a symbiotic relationship, and need each other to become meaningful in the education landscape.
  2. Curation and Mentorship: One key role a traditional college fills is to curate a myriad of choices into organized degree programs. Academic deans put a great deal of effort into determining course options and degree requirements. If students forgo the four-year degree, they need thoughtful academic advisors to help them choose wisely. Could educational search sites like Noodle or next-gen learning management systems evolve to address this need? Is there a mentorship program that can scale to meet the needs of millions of students?
  3. Social Experience: Social ties, friendships and networks are all valuable by-products of a four year college education and can serve a person throughout their life. Students pursuing an alternative route to education must replace the social experience they would have gained in college. If they’re no longer building those relationships in a dorm, they can gain them in campus-style learning locations like the Cambridge Innovation Center, Intelligent.ly, and Dogpatch Labs, tech accelerators like Y Combinator, and online learning communities like OpenStudy.
  4. Viable Alternative Credentials: There must be a systematic way to assess what students are learning, and translate that into a legitimate credential that is widely accepted by employers and others. Students who cobble together an education from disparate sources need a flexible credentialing system that covers a wide range of competencies gained in a variety of places. Employers will use these credentials to evaluate students on an even playing field, against graduates of a traditional four-year degree program.

The degree that once stood as the great differentiator for those who earned it is no longer the holy grail of economic stability and advancement – but it’s not too late to be salvaged. There are many signs that higher ed is paying attention – from MIT and Harvard University’s collaboration on EdX and the partnerships 2tor has struck to roll out online degrees at universities, to SNHU’s award-winning CollegeUnbound program. And where the status quo is too slow, there’s always a raft of innovative startups eager to disrupt the existing paradigm!