According to a recent Gallup poll, only “about half of U.S. adults (51%) now consider a college education to be ‘very important,’ down from 70% in 2013.”
That’s a significant drop in such a short period of time.
However, when I saw this statistic I was honestly surprised that the rate wasn’t even lower.
I believe it’s becoming clearer that a college degree isn’t producing the same rate of return on the substantial investment required.
In fact, I agree with the author of a Forbes article who highlights the outrageous price of college, saying
“The cost of college is out of control — with tuition up roughly 400% since 1990 and rising more than twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Higher education institutions, with the help of states, the federal government and employers need to reign it in, period.”
But the cost alone isn’t the sole factor behind the drop in importance. The reason is that the high price doesn’t lead to guaranteed job security and satisfaction like it used to. In the same Forbes article, the author continues,
“With 13% of U.S. adults, 11% of C-level executives and 6% of college trustees giving strong approvals to the work readiness of college grads, there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”
The sad truth is that colleges and universities continue raising their tuition without changing the education they offer. So students are essentially paying more for worse outcomes in terms of job readiness.
Why am I so critical and pessimistic about the future of higher education?
Well, I recently switched careers and find myself experiencing this exact situation.
I have two undergraduate degrees and a graduate degree, which helped me get my first job as a teacher. I taught in a public school for eight years, before recently switching careers entirely.
Even despite needing specific education and training to become a teacher, I still felt ill-prepared during my first few years as a teacher (and I’m not alone, which is why many teachers leave the classroom within five years). But I stuck it out and eventually got better at it.
However, like many millennials, I got tired of doing the same routine work and also having limited career prospects. I felt like I was creating the exact disconnect between education and the real world that is rendering a college degree useless.
I saw students bored with the same curriculum that I learned when I was in high school and I saw teachers who refused to modernize their lessons and help their students gain real-world skills.
Meanwhile, I had students who were leaps and bounds ahead of the curriculum in their own learning. They were teaching themselves skills like coding, videography, photography, makeup, graphic design, playing an instrument, writing music, and languages all from the comfort of their home. They connected with experts and mentors online and grew at a much faster pace than traditional high school would allow.
And this is exactly why higher education is becoming obsolete.
Technology and the internet have revolutionized and democratized learning and education in general isn’t keeping up.
My students started teaching me things and their passions got me excited about exploring a new career.
Sure I loved teaching and learning from my students, but I hated the system and the uninspiring leadership who wasn’t concerned with revamping education to meet the needs of the next generation.
And this is the fear I had when considering switching careers: that my education wouldn’t qualify me or prepare me for another job outside of education.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who connected me to the consulting firm where I now work, despite having no business education. But most of what I’m learning on the job isn’t general business knowledge. I’m learning specific companies — their tools, their processes and their technology. All things I’m able to gain through on-the-job training, but a college degree didn’t necessarily prepare me for.
And I’m not the only one in this situation. I’m seeing firsthand how people across my firm and at our clients aren’t using their college degrees for their work, either.
So how can Higher Education save itself from the fate of Blockbuster?
1. Get rid of degrees altogether
There are two major problems with college majors that make them obsolete:
First, students are too young and inexperienced at life to understand what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Sadly, a college degree is seen as a direct link to certain job opportunities, so essentially students are forced to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives and stick to that. Like me, I didn’t want to teach forever but if we only looked at college degrees than I would have been stuck. It’s an unfair system.
Secondly, jobs — and life in general — are not packaged into neat little subjects. Everything is cross-curricular, meaning that it takes knowledge and skills from different areas to solve complex problems. Yet education still treats learning by separating everything into disparate pieces — distinct colleges, distinct buildings, distinct classes and projects without connection to some broader real-life application.
Instead, higher education should think of learning as a journey that every student must go on. It should be a requirement to learn across subjects and especially in disciplines that students wouldn’t normally choose for themselves.
2. Teach students how to learn, not what to learn
If I get stuck in my job, I search Google or Youtube or I ask someone who knows. Yet these are the skills that education isn’t teaching students.
In my experience as a student and a teacher, education was all about giving students the answers and asking them to regurgitate them. So from a young age, students get used to that and expect an easy path to good grades.
It’s much more important to learn the skill of how to learn any new skill rather than how to memorize already-outdated facts or specific procedures. Yet this is what education teaches students and why they are failing to prepare them to be successful after graduation.
Instead, education should provide more open-ended problem solving and application of learning. Students should be challenged to find answers and synthesize their skills across subjects and disciplines. They should get regular feedback and experience, because learning is hard and rarely results in perfect grades the first time around. These are the learning experiences that everyone goes through at work, but that school doesn’t prepare students for.
After all, regardless of changes in technology and the workplace, it’s a guarantee that everyone will have to learn a new skill to stay relevant in the future.
3. Offer real-world training outside of the classroom
I’m seeing a lot of working adults who didn’t attend college but rather chose to get their training through a specific program or on-the-job apprenticeship training. They were prepared for a career that they’re in and they make a lot more money than I do, despite my graduate degree.
It’s more important than ever that colleges and universities start to offer students real-world learning experiences. Students should not be able to graduate with a degree if all they did was sit in a classroom for four years.
Overall, the best way for higher education to help prepare students for work is to know that change is inevitable. If colleges and universities want to stay relevant to future generations, then they must re-think how they will educate future generations.
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