For more than a decade, the question has been raised in blaring headline after blaring headline: Are College Degrees Becoming Obsolete? Given the current enrollment numbers, it doesn’t seem as though American colleges and universities are going to disappear overnight. But consider these two facts: one) university enrollment has been declining for eight years, and two) traditional higher education is being challenged by work-training programs that arm students with very specific skills that businesses say they need.
It is clear colleges and universities will be facing some major headwinds unless they rethink their roles in preparing students for the workforce, according to one respected expert on higher education.
“There’s a rising demand for talent, and colleges and universities are a major engine of talent production in this country. I continue to argue that they will be for the foreseeable future, but their position is much more precarious than it was a few years ago,” according to Jamie Merisotis, the President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, a foundation whose mission is to make post-high school learning opportunities available to all. His book, America Needs Talent, is now out in an updated, second edition.
“What we’ve seen is an ecosystem emerging here of post-secondary learning where colleges and universities are a key element, but not the sole element. Workplace-based learning, direct-to-consumer programs, etc. All of those things are sort of part of this emerging ecosystem,” explains Merisotis. I had the chance to talk with him about the big question: ‘how is higher education going to position itself as relevant in that universe?’
“The system has got to respond to that,” Merisotis says, “or else we will create an entirely new system that largely leaves higher education in the dust, and that would be bad.” He believes that because of its origins, higher education continues to see itself as largely a “temporal” entity. “The way most people think about higher education is first you go to college then you go to work. That’s sort of the mindset. And the college and universities are part of that mindset.”
“But what we now know—and WorkingNation has been really, really good at pointing out—is that in this new economy, in this knowledge-based economy, working and learning have to be tightly connected, and it’s an ongoing process. By and large, the system of higher education still sees itself as educating and then somebody else is dealing with the rest of it. And that’s deeply problematic from the consumer perspective,” he argues.
“What the consumer wants to know is, do I know more than I did before? Do I have a credential that demonstrates that I know more because that’s what I need in order for my employer or my future employers to be able to recognize that so that I can advance personally? And I think higher education is increasingly going to run into headwinds in this temporal model if it’s not careful.”
Merisotis is not a fan of the phrase “lifelong learning,” but he believes that what you learn at work allows you to learn new things outside of work. “Lifelong learning to me is a concept that works really well for educators, but it doesn’t work really well for anybody else. That doesn’t sound very attractive to people like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to learn my whole life?’ My visual is, it’s like a ratchet. You keep ratcheting up. You’re working, and you’re learning. By learning more, you get to work in a different way.“
This fall, there are an estimated 19.9 million students enrolled in two- and four-year schools. That’s down from the peak enrollment of 21 million in 2010. Merisotis says the decline is partly attributable to the growing sophistication and growing development of the alternative post-high school ecosystem. Another pressure on higher education is soaring tuitions.
“The price is unsupportable for a growing proportion of the population. The indicators of the price pressures are things like very high debt levels, and the shift of students, particularly higher-income students, from private institutions to public universities,” Merisotis tells me. “There’s a sort of broader market-effect that you can see of people saying, ‘is this really worth it?’”
Merisotis is clear that we shouldn’t be sending the message that you don’t need to go to college because, for most people, it still the principal pathway to achieving the level of education that will land you a good-paying job. “Your ability to be a part of the middle class is increasingly going to require you to have a post-secondary credential. I think the new version of the American Dream needs to be that you’ve got to develop your talent over the course of your lifetime. That college is a means, not an end. And that learning process right now is largely going to take place in college and universities.”
Over time, he says, that will shift. It has to. According to Merisotis, the right message to students is that your success will be tied to your ability to understand deeply and learn more. “We’ve got to aim them towards this idea that your success is going to be tied, not to this one-shot opportunity to get a college degree, but to your ability to live and work in a context where you are working and learning in parallel processes.”
Merisotis says that message should be shared with workers of all ages. There are many workers in low-wage, low-skill jobs who want to find a better job. The problem is that they may not know how to advance to the next level. “They are employed, but they’re clearly just sort of treading water or slowly sinking. That’s one of the reasons why I think there is a direct-to-consumer model that’s emerging here that’s more appealing. If you’re somebody who’s our age and who still has a useful work life ahead of them, and they can learn online, there’s a lot of motivation to that.”
Some traditional higher education institutions see the value of filling that need, offering online courses to a broader base of students, not just those enrolled and attending classes on campus. edX is a collaboration of Harvard and MIT founded in 2012. It offers high-quality courses from more than 130 partnering universities and institutions to learners everywhere. Importantly, it also offers professional credentials, micro-masters degrees, and now micro-bachelor’s degrees.
“You can see some innovation in the higher-end, more elite schools, but is it enough? I don’t think it is,” Merisotis tells me. “I think that those are still more of the exceptions than the rule, but I think you’re starting to see an accelerated pace of it.”
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