Skip to content
The Present

In the future, will we acquire skills, not degrees?

Nontraditional education options are on the rise.


Key Takeaways
  • U.S. college enrollment has declined for the eighth consecutive year.
  • Recent survey found that a majority of freelancers found skills training to be more important than having a degree.
  • It’s becoming harder for universities to keep up with a rapidly changing workforce.

It should come as no surprise to mostly anyone who is paying attention, that we’re in a seriously fast moving and complex technology-driven economy. One of the likes we’ve never seen before and one that’s only going to get wilder.

Disruption in every corner of the economy and our society at large has become the rule and not the exception. Some areas are speeding along faster than others. The latest institution in the crosshairs of progress? The American university. With antiquated systems still in place, a fading relevancy, and inability to keep up with an evolving workforce — the degree system we’ve used as a crutch for merit this century is coming to its end.

College enrollment decline

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found that college enrollment in the U.S. has again decreased for its eighth consecutive year. The report covers up to 97 percent of enrollments within the country at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

The report goes into a detailed breakdown on degrees, age ranges, and location. It’s worth checking out as it could be indicative of a much larger trend. While there are some new growing areas of study — we can always speculate on the best college majors of the future — the overarching trend, in both quantitative measures and cultural sentiment, is one of a future geared towards skills, not degrees.

Increasingly there are more and more renowned and prestigious companies that no longer require a college degree for work. Recently Glassdoor created a list of major companies where a degree wasn’t required. Some included powerhouses such as Apple and Google. Why the sudden cultural shift from the bigwigs?

It’s a common trend that many people go to college only to end up getting a job that doesn’t relate in any way to what they studied. Major corporations are starting to realize that. Right now, a great deal of companies that still require degrees seem to be using the degree as a signal or key. A key that gets you in the door and tells your potential employer that you have completed something all the way through and are reliable. At least on paper, anyway. . .

Accredited skills and experience matters the most

One of the fastest growing areas of work is within the freelancing community or “gig economy.” A recent survey titled Freelancing in America 2018 found that 93 percent of freelancers with four year degrees said that skills training was more useful than their degree. A majority of 70 percent of freelancers participated in new skills training within the past six months, compared to only 49 percent of full-time non-freelancers that didn’t do any skills training in that same time frame.

This data leads us to the root of what’s been happening in the workforce this past decade. Exponential technological change paired with absurd educational costs and, of course, the 4 year minimum time sink — has made the university system, a difficult path to commit to and choose. The cost of a college education isn’t directly correlated anymore with your potential future earnings.

A lot of what is being taught in college has no bearing or relevance on the day-to-day functions of a real job. Yet, there is still this perception that degrees are some kind of holy constitution of mastery over your topic of study. For doctors or other highly advanced degrees, that may still be true for now. But more often than not, your professional competency has nothing to do with what you learned in school.

Take programming, for instance. For a dynamic skill like web development, information from a few years ago is already irrelevant. Those who are actually professionals need to be active in a dynamic community and constantly stay up to date with the technology.

Writers and marketers can’t afford to be trapped for four years in a room with a blackboard and a tenured professor that can’t log into his own email account. While you were toiling away reading Chaucher and learning how to format an outdated market research plan, this friggin’ guy learned everything he needed to know from a bargain blog and is running ads on a social platform that didn’t exist a year ago. . .

Knowledge is not static. The old hyper-specialized cog is not the ideal worker anymore. The archetype of this workforce era is the Renaissance (wo)man.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Freelancers understand that. Even if you do have a diploma or intend on getting one, the mindset of always learning is the new way. A 2016 World Economic forum found that in most industries and countries, the most in-demand jobs and specialties were jobs that were just created in the past five years.

While a majority of schools are not keeping up with the real world, there are a few initiatives attempting to remedy this problem.

Lumina foundation’s solutions for knowledge advancement

One such organization concerned about the future of education is the Lumina foundation. Their recent 2019 Education Innovation Prize challenge, sought to challenge competition entrants to find better solutions for after high school education.

Miami-Dade College’s Accelerated Credential Training and Skills (MDC ACTS) program took home the first place prize this year. They’ve created something called the earn-and-learn model. Working with a number of different employers, they’ve developed 12 week programs to provide continual technical training. People will be provided on the job training, while also receiving hourly pay and a round of guaranteed job interviews. Successful graduates earn credentials that they can then use for further learning and even greater job opportunities.

Executive vice president of the project, Lenore Rodicio talks about how an initiative like this will allay some major problems that young adults face.

“For some, the decision about whether to stay in school can come down to a choice between putting food on the table or going to class. We hope that with our earn-and-learn model, fewer people will have to make that choice. . . It allows students to remain in school while earning a wage, raise their skills in high-demand local industries, and have an entry point to a higher education pathway.”

It only makes sense that businesses, and even some colleges, retune their approach to both skill acquisition and employment.


Up Next