Are colleges necessary?

Student debt, sticker price, a pandemic, and economic uncertainty has Gen Z rethinking education.
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If you’re rethinking your education these days, rest assured: You are not alone. Through a global pandemic, all-time high student debt, a “Great Resignation,” and a less-than-certain economic outlook –– more people than ever are questioning their career path, and the education required to get there.

Amid all of this uncertainty, a question emerges: Is a college degree really worth it? 

While it may be true that your college degree still gives you a salary boost, the landscape is radically shifting. The high sticker price of universities mixed with an unpredictable labor market and the rise of online training programs have resulted in a decline in college and university enrollments. 

Illustrating one attempt to address the issue, more than a dozen universities are now experimenting with a “College in 3” program, which would offer a college degree in a shorter time frame, for less. Whatever happens, it’s clear that colleges are going to need to undergo transformation to adapt to the times.

More people than ever are questioning their career path, and the education required to get there.

The workplace requires new skills. And then newer ones.

According to Jamie Kohn, research director at the tech research firm Gartner, the key reason for this trend is that “the skills we need are changing so fast.” According to her data, this is happening so rapidly that skills that were relevant in the business world just a few years ago are inapplicable today. Nearly a third, 29%, of skills required in 2018 will not be needed by 2022 and 26% have already expired.

Not only have skills been evolving, but new skills, for new roles, have been added to the mix as well.

Businesses are understanding that “lifelong learning is key,” says Kohn, who focuses on best practices in recruiting strategy and talent attraction — specifically helping clients develop university recruiting strategies. As a result, they are investing more heavily in skill-based training. Even adding a few courses, she said, can make a big difference for job candidates.

Businesses are looking for new ways to address this skills gap

“Businesses are under increasing pressure to think differently about where they’re getting talent from,” said Kohn. “Part of that has been an openness to hiring people who don’t have college degrees.”

When drawing from the university pools, Kohn has also observed companies making efforts to find candidates from outside of the traditional sources. Clorox, for instance, hosts a regional competition where students from a range of schools, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Ivies, have the chance to display their skills. 

Kohn says that companies are still struggling to find skills outside of a university pool –– but this is starting to shift, “as a function of how competitive the labor market is right now,” she said. 

“There is a certain window of opportunity right now for both candidates and companies to really change the way that they think about finding quality talent,” she said. “What they use as those markers of quality are moving away from college degrees as being a default.”

The high sticker price of universities mixed with an unpredictable labor market and the rise of online training programs have resulted in a decline in college and university enrollments.

Colleges must adapt

College is becoming massively expensive.

Kohn, a first-generation college student, grew up hearing about college as a “differentiator; a catalyst for a change in circumstances.” And she still sees college as “such a status symbol.” The exorbitant cost of college today, however, is making many rethink this option.

Mabel Okojie, a professor of workforce development at Mississippi State University, has observed this firsthand; many of her students see college as too expensive. 

“What I hear from students: ‘College is not for me,’” Okojie said.

Her students are struggling with mounting loans, and many are forced to live with their parents after graduating. If they do become employed, their jobs often don’t pay enough to live on, she said. “They ask: ‘Is it necessary?’”

Freeing students from massive debt could also have an impact on the kinds of careers they choose, Kohn believes. It could make them rethink “the commitments that they’re willing to make if they don’t have, you know, $50,000 or $100,000 of student loan debt.”

Solutions for universities?

On top of the price tag, Okojie doesn’t think universities are doing enough to offer students the skills they need. 

Kohn agrees. “Universities have been becoming less relevant for a long time,” she said, because they’re not properly “equipping students with the skills that are needed to move into the workforce.”

The kinds of skills-training offered in the private sector could provide a model for universities, Okojie believes. “Universities should offer classes that help people go into workplaces,” she said.

Also, Okojie argues that universities could improve by “amplifying their expertise in the things they do better [than industry],” she said. They could partner with other universities, for instance, the way many tech companies do, to save costs and offer students a higher quality education.

Universities tend to be reactive, she says. If they took a more active role, offering micro-credentials –– a course or two at a reduced rate –– that could help entice students. Universities could also experiment with apprenticeships. “We leave it to industry to do these things,” she said. Instead, universities should become proactive and offer their own solutions.

“Universities should offer classes that help people go into workplaces.”

Mabel Okojie

Enter: a new generation of training

Kohn has seen a “massive rise in training programs.” 

The statistics bear this out. Just over the spring of 2021, Coursera’s enrollment spiked from 53 million to 78 million students –– an increase of 25 million, greater than the total enrollment in U.S. higher education. And 58% of job candidates today say that they’ve taken courses in the last year to learn skills outside of their current job, Kohn said. 

According to Kohn, Gen Z workers are “taking their development into their own hands” — 43% are self-taught in one or more of the skills needed for a job they interviewed for. Also, when compared with other generations, they predict that a “higher percentage of their skills (32%) will expire in the next three years,” she explained. 

Beyond Coursera, organizations from museums to tech companies to libraries are offering online courses. And tech giants Microsoft and Google offer more than 75 certificate programs together. 

Amazon recently made a $1.2 billion Upskilling 2025 pledge. Amazon Technical Academy is one of the company’s nine free upskilling programs, and helps students land jobs at the company. While some of the participants do hold degrees, it can also help those without one.

One example is Justin Carver, Amazon Software Development Engineer. “I struggled a lot in college, mostly due to a lack of interest in a lot of the classes that are required to graduate,” Carver said. “I often would spend more time researching and learning coding than at the college I was paying to attend.” He didn’t finish college and was searching for an experience that could fit his interests. 

Amazon Technical Academy, unlike other programs, according to Carver, “has the opportunity to directly turn your learning into a career with Amazon. The program placed me on an AWS team for an internship right after graduation. This allowed me to not only grow as a developer but also gave me a chance to show my growth and transition into a full-time role.”

Carver acknowledges: “What worked for me might not work for someone else. If you are looking for direction on a career path, college may be a good fit for you. But if you know what you want to do, or you don’t find many of the required subjects interesting, then you might be paying for an education that you may never use.” 

Gen Z is taking their work development into their own hands, with skills-based training and online education.

Colleges still offer something essential

Despite the popularity of new skills-based training and online education, college isn’t going away anytime soon.

Kohn believes that those on the fence should consider the outside experiences colleges offer, from networking to social clubs to labs. These opportunities require active participation from students. And Okojie Thinks that colleges still offer something unique –– especially in disciplines like medicine and law. 

But it’s the overall experience that she sees as most valuable.

“That breadth of experience is really critical –– getting exposure to different subjects, different people, even as a socialization opportunity,” said Okojie. “It’s not going to stop being critical.”

But it’s up to universities to stay ahead of the curve. Without students, they will close. And if people stop going to university, she said, “the economy will fail.”“It’s not just about work,” said Okojie. “It’s about developing ourselves. It’s about having a visionary quality.”

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