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Death of the Degree? Not So Fast
To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you too may one day be president of the United States.
– President George W. Bush, Yale Commencement Address, 2001
The death of the college degree – the standard signal for an educated adult for over a millennium – is foretold by the lions of Silicon Valley. Over the past year, the phenomenon known as massive open online courses (MOOCs) -- now being offered by elite universities like Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley -- have been featured in virtually every major media outlet. The prevailing notion reflected in breathless headlines is that taking a MOOC or two to learn a specific skill – and, in the process, earning what’s being called a “badge” – will kill degrees whose length and cost seem antiquated. Like overgrown Boy and Girl Scouts, adults will sport a collection of badges instead of framing and hanging their diplomas.
Degree doubters have a valid point. The degree is a crude instrument for evaluating educational attainment. A bachelor’s degree merely indicates that a student sat (or slept in a drunken stupor) through at least 120 credit hours of C-graded “college-level” work.
But the degree is not going away; even Silicon Valley billions will not disrupt it. For one, degrees are deeply embedded into the fabric of the labor market. The U.S. Army effectively mandates a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree to become an officer. Doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals may not practice without degrees from accredited universities. More broadly, a bachelor’s degree is universally viewed as the price of entry to a white-collar career (although increasingly not a guarantee).
Degrees are so embedded because they deliver significant value to students and employers. For students, there is a great deal of interaction and accumulation across the components of a quality university degree. Degrees push students to take classes they would otherwise avoid. The outcomes – critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, teamwork – are hard to measure, often overlooked and, like many things in life, unappreciated until they’re gone (which explains, but does not lessen the irony of the fact that the critics and would-be disruptors all have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from elite universities). And to the extent badges attempt to enforce the same discipline and achieve comparable outcomes, they sound remarkably like degrees.
Badges are also nothing new. Microsoft-certified engineers have been a critical “badge” for much of the last 20 years. Technology will bring a whole new slew of badges that are highly valued by employers – and MOOCs may be a critical piece of new-badge economics. However, a degree signals that the student had the stick-to-it-iveness to complete a challenging project over a number of years (even if some of it was spent sleeping or inebriated). By definition, it will be difficult or not impossible for technology to replicate the value of this signal. A scan of job market postings reveals no change whatsoever in the percentage of jobs requiring degrees. This is equally true of Silicon Valley startups.
Degrees will remain the currency of higher education. The most recent evidence of this is the rapid progress MOOCs are making to conform to the degree economy. Antioch recently announced that it would license Coursera MOOCs to provide its students with a lower-cost path to a bachelor’s degree. And this week Coursera announced that the American Council on Education would evaluate its MOOCs for potential credit recommendation – one that carries great weight with thousands of higher education institutions in determining whether to recognize courses for credit.
At the same time, degrees will undoubtedly evolve. While many employers today request college transcripts, particularly for entry-level positions, transcripts are used for degree verification, not as indicative of competencies or skills that may or may not match the employer’s needs. This is because transcripts are opaque to employers. No HR or hiring manager is equipped to decipher a particular transcript from a particular institution. No employer is able to forecast from a student’s transcript his or her likely job performance, in part or in aggregate.
This is an inefficiency that Silicon Valley will solve. And it will be solved first through the “double-click degree” – a transcript that an employer can “double click” on to learn a lot more about the course and the student’s performance. Double-click degrees will unpack course performance into discrete capabilities and competencies. Instead of knowing that a student received a B+ in Public Speaking 101 from their local community college, employers will be able to double-click on the course and find the student mastered prepared oratory, but is incapable of extemporaneous speech. The accounting A- is transformed into a textured understanding of whether a student mastered cost accounting or got stuck on T accounts.
Used correctly, technology will create a degree of even greater value. The double-click degree will be a tool for employers and employees to discuss what competencies a student actually mastered in school. This improved information has the potential to result in better matches between employers and prospective employees, and fill some of America’s 3.7 million unfilled jobs.
Daniel Pianko and Ryan Craig are managing directors at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.
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