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Unbundling the 4-year degree: How to design education for the future

By Kelsea Kierstead
May 10th, 2018

Countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education

Employers are in desperate need of skilled workers to address current employee shortages and prepare for projected disruption in the workplace. For example, artificial intelligence will create 2.3 million jobs while eliminating 1.8 million by 2020, according to a 2017 Gartner report.

To fill jobs now while preparing for the future, countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education. Such a change requires new mindsets for institutions and businesses.

The rise of micro-credentials

Perhaps the biggest trend that has the attention of colleges and universities is “micro-credentialing,” as enrollment continues to decline in traditional college degree and master’s programs.

“As we move toward an ecosystem of skills- or competency-based hiring, employers will care less about the degree itself,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of the nonprofit Education Design Lab (The Lab), an organization that works with more than 70 institutions and employers to prepare students to fill jobs, and offers opportunities to earn employer-desired skills. “For liberal arts degrees particularly, institutions have to think about how to compete at the competency level, not the degree level, because that’s what consumers will expect in many disciplines.”

deLaski believes that college departments offering majors that prepare students for regulated industries that require degree-level certifications may find it easier to keep their full degree-level requirements in place, such as pre-med and K-12 teaching.

“Many proponents of student success argue that employers will continue to require a degree for most roles,” she says, “but once employers start accepting ‘shortcuts’ or ‘alternatives,’ and once competency-based hiring gains steam, the pace of disruption will quicken.”

How to redesign #highered for the future

The tight labor market already has employers like IBM, Walmart, and Amazon experimenting with alternatives to the four-year degree. In response, higher education is rethinking the value of the degree, accelerated by pressures like the Internet of Things, automation, student debt, and wage stagnation. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that less than half of Americans believe that a four-year degree is “worth it.”

The drivers of change

To create real change in the higher-ed landscape, deLaski outlines key areas that have potential to transform higher education toward the future of work.

Microcredentials for 21st century skills

Microcredentials in higher education have exploded in the past couple years; one in five colleges offer digital badges. To support institutions and employers in defining standards for badges, Education Design Lab designs and tests rigorous courses that enable students to hone in-demand skills desired by employers.

About the Author:

Kelsea Kierstead is a communications professional who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


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