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Considering the Alternatives

Alternatives to the baccalaureate have exploded, giving prospective students many lower-cost options.

June 26, 2019
 

Considering the plethora of lower-cost (in both dollars and time) alternatives to the traditional degree, it is no surprise that enrollment at the bachelor's level in higher ed has dropped for the past half-dozen years. Sure, a robust economy has contributed to the decline, but applications to the University of California system and other major universities, as well as most midsized and smaller colleges, are down for 2019.

The situation is not getting better. Students are weighing alternatives in terms of cost, time to completion and employability. And the alternatives are proliferating. One website, Alternatives to College, matches prospective students to 200 different boot camps, apprenticeships, code academies, income share, online short courses and more. Many of these are agile small start-ups that can release new programs just in time to meet employer needs and student demands.

Then, of course, there are the giant MOOC providers offering courses, certificates and degrees. Coursera recently revealed that it is valued at well more than a billion dollars. And, with nearly 40 million students, the company's momentum is massive. Udacity and edX are also thriving while reaching tens of millions of learners.

FutureLearn, a subsidiary of the UK Open University, is serving millions of learners in 18 countries with its 200 courses from 120 universities. And, China's XuetangX now reaches 16 million learners and offers 1,900 classes from universities in China as well as Stanford, Berkeley and others. All of these alternatives provide credentials that are certified and badged, in many cases with learning outcomes carefully designed to meet employer needs.

Some very large employers are reassessing the need for the baccalaureate. Apple CEO Tim Cook says nearly half of Apple's U.S. employment last year was made up of non-degree holders. He says most colleges don't build the skills business leaders need most, such as coding. And, Siemens USA CEO Barbara Humpton says in the past the degree requirement merely helped hiring managers to identify a smaller qualified candidate group.

With the average new college graduate earning about $50,000, it is noteworthy that there are many job categories where non-degree holders start at more than $70,000 with no huge college loans to pay back, saving both time and money.

Institutions are responding in a variety of ways. The Brookings Institution has identified some of the key causes and responses:

Around the world, tuition at universities is rising at a much faster rate than inflation and challenging students' return on investment. Reduced government funding and higher operating costs are driving the need for change at universities. The mismatch in employer needs and employee skills is leaving over seven million jobs unfilled in the U.S. … There will undoubtedly be on-going opportunities for new approaches and actors to innovate in higher education as the sector continues to face high costs, decreasing returns on investment, and skills mis-matches.

So, how do we make a value case to prospective students and employers? We can offer our own short-courses and professional education options. Certainly, the degree is far more than vocational training. The general education portion of our degrees cultivates both creative and critical thinking. Diverse communication skills -- one of the top-rated areas desired by employers -- is another area in which we can excel. These are just a few of the areas in which baccalaureate holders have an edge over their less-educated competitors. We must document these skills.

One group of 13 universities in the Virginia and D.C. area is doing just that. The institutions are collaborating with businesses to create a digital credential that certifies learning in a number of digital tech literacy courses. "It is neither a major, nor a minor, nor a formal certificate. It is, rather, a recognition that students have taken a short sequence of courses (five at GMU) that cover knowledge and skills in high demand."

Considering the alternatives, we can no longer depend upon just our "good name" and reputation; prospective students and employers expect explicit proof that we are meeting their needs. To fall short of that expectation will feed continued decline in enrollments. What steps are you taking to demonstrate and certify to employers that your graduates have the skills and abilities that they need?

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Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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