I’ve worked in higher education, specifically online higher education, for more than a decade. I do this because I believe in the power of education to transform lives. In fact, that is Learning House’s mission statement: We help people improve their lives through education. One of the greatest advances of the 20th century, I believe, is the democratizing of higher education so that it became more accessible. Not only was education available to the less affluent, women and minorities also gained access to the hallowed halls of academia. All of this, I believe, has been good for our economy and our society and bodes well for our future.
At the same time, I believe the pendulum has swung too far. Our higher education system stretched so far that I think it is no longer as effective as it can, and should, be. Fixing our higher education system is possible, however.
Standard of Entry
A bachelor’s degree has, increasingly, become the standard of entry into the workforce. According to a report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of jobs by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent in 1973. Even jobs that once were considered “low skill” may now require a bachelor’s degree. A report from Burning Glass has identified what it calls “upcredentialing,” where jobs that did not used to require a degree now do. For example, 65 percent of job postings for Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants now require a bachelor’s degree, despite only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles having a four-year degree. As a result, more students are enrolling in undergraduate programs than in the past.
Not only has the demand for bachelor’s degrees increased, but so too have the ways students can earn them. There are approximately 3,000 four-year degree granting institutions in the United Stated today, compared to 2,000 in 1980.
In addition to the number of institutions available to students, the ways students can learn also has increased. Online learning, to take the example I’m most familiar with, has given unprecedented flexibility to the student population. Those who 20 years ago were shut out of the ability to earn a degree due to time or geographic constraints are now able to earn a degree from anywhere in the country, fitting it in around their work and family schedules.
Definitely Increased Debt
The $1.3 trillion in student loan debt should come as no surprise to anyone in the education sector; it’s been heralded extensively in the media. By 2025, that number is expected to reach almost $2.5 trillion. And students are defaulting on those loans, with 11.5 percent of students being delinquent or in default.
This doesn’t just affect higher education – it has a significant effect on the economy of the United States as a whole. Recent graduates are getting married later, purchasing homes later (if at all) and generally spending less, because so much of their income has to go to servicing their debt.
Not Enough Focus on Outcomes
While the need for higher education has increased, what we teach, and how we teach it, has not changed. While the system delivers education, it does not necessarily deliver outcomes, or if it does, we are not accurately tracking those outcomes. When looking for a school, it is difficult for students to find information like “found a job in their field six months after graduation” or “paid off student loan debt” or “learned valuable skills.” Instead, the glossy websites will show pictures of students smiling on campus or studying on a computer. These are good experiences to have, to be sure – I loved my time on my college campus and made wonderful friends and lifelong memories. But it’s not what students need. They need to know that when we ask them to make this major investment, they will see a return on that investment. They need to have the ability to make an informed decision about what school will give them the skills they need for their desired career. Without this information, and especially combined with market pressures to earn a degree, we are doing students a huge disservice. We are asking them to make decisions blindly, and then we are saddling them with debt as a consequence of those decisions.
Reason to Hope
This doesn’t mean our education system is broken beyond repair, of course. One of the most exciting developments I’ve seen over the past few years has been the rise of alternative options to the traditional four-year degree. Microdegrees, bootcamps, competency-based education…all of these are programs designed to help students acquire specific skills, fast.
One of the things I appreciate about The Software Guild, Learning House’s coding bootcamp, is how committed we are to tracking job placement rates of our graduates. That’s why we’re able to confidently say that 95% of our graduates get jobs as entry-level developers within six months. One of the goals I am pushing the entire company toward is tracking these outcomes for all of our partners, not only The Software Guild. If we can demonstrate the utility of a four-year degree, we can help students make an informed decision about their future, and why they should invest in one of our partner school’s programs. Transparency around graduation and job placement rates will help the higher education market prove its value and help students make the right choice to achieve their goals. Not only that, tracking these outcomes will help institutions adapt to market forces and offer the programs that people want and that provide the right outcomes. If we know that a program results in a high job placement rate in a growing industry, then we can offer more of those kinds of programs. Information breeds success.
We also are working with our partners to help them find ways to make their programs more affordable and more accessible to students. Tuition is one of the biggest barriers to earning a degree. Schools need to understand the value of the degree (which goes back to tracking outcomes!) and then they can determine the best cost. I suspect that when we start doing that, we will see tuition drop.
Whether it’s accepting more transfer credit, implementing competency-based programs that allow for faster completion or developing innovative programs that meet market needs, we want schools to begin to reimagine the higher education landscape.
How do you think we can fix higher education?