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Are academic degrees past their "best-by" dates?
How certificates and non-traditional educational providers may upend the academic degree
Special edition of the Ex4EDU.Report for the SEAA Trust 14th IAC 2021
A model rooted in the middle ages
The academic degree has a long and complex history. Some scholars place its origins dating back to 1179 at the Lateran III ecclesiastical conference in Rome. The purpose of those first degrees was to grant the right to teach and interpret the Bible.
Several centuries of changes in higher education have resulted in the introduction of a hierarchy of degrees of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. In the U.S. it is estimated that there is a cornucopia of at least 1,500 variations of types of degrees. This plethora of degrees may be an indicator that time has come for a different model.
Are degrees as a concept past their “best-by” date?
When we purchase products in a shop, there is often a date on the product that says something such as “best-by” indicating the expiration of when the product can be safely sold or consumed. It may be time to ask if the current approach to degree-based higher education is past its best-by date.
The number and diversity of degrees belie a crisis of confidence in the value of higher education and increasingly the worth of a degree. Results of a survey by Third Way, a U.S.-based Think Tank, surveying over 2,000 interviews of students and caregivers suggested that only 1/3 of felt that higher education was worth the cost.
The value of a degree is also questioned on multiple fronts. First, the cost of higher education has been increasing for decades at rates far in excess of general inflation. These increases have created an affordability problem for many students.
Second, despite evidence to show that degrees continue to improve lifetime earnings, the added value has been shrinking when measured in terms of wealth accumulation. Research by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the wealth premium of university graduates declined precipitously over recent years from 247% to only 42% against non-graduates. This is likely due to the higher cost of attaining a degree, the associated debt load, and diminished earning potential.
Last, the currency or shelf life of the knowledge obtained in a degree program has drastically shrunk. The mantra of 4 years studying for a 40-year career is a relic of history. Authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their book A New Culture of Learning categorize the half-life of knowledge in university degrees as perishable skills—a half-life of less than 2.5 years, semi-durable skills—a half-life of 2.5 to 7.5 years, and durable skills—a half-life of more than 7.5 years. The more durable tend to be soft skills while the less durable—and often more frequently the mainstay in higher education—are the technical skills.
The declining attractiveness of university or college degrees is also reflected in what has been a decade-long fall in higher education enrollments in many countries. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, higher education enrollment in the U.S., for example, has seen two years of significant pandemic-related declines following a 10-year trend of decline. Projections by McKinsey & Co. do not paint a good picture for the future, either, with demand for higher education seen as entering a significant decline mid-decade.
These issues clearly indicate that degrees and academic programs as we now understand them may be past their “best-by” dates. There are some clear indicators of what may come next.
Some thoughts on those trends and indicators will be covered in the next issue of Ex4EDU.Report.
About the Ex4EDU.Report
This report is offered as a free-of-charge contribution by Lone Tree Academics, LLC, an educational services company focused on enabling excellence in higher education. Our services are focused on excellence-based practices for the development of institution and program strategies, curriculum design, and engaging LearningScapes™.
For more information visit www.ltacademics.com