You’ve probably heard it all your life: College is not optional. If you’re going to succeed at life, you’d better have that degree — and the more “prestigious” the school you get it from, the better. But does college really make sense anymore? For many young people — perhaps even most young people — it does not.
We believe traditional education is needed because it’s a signal — a psychological shortcut that enables us to make good decisions without doing the exhaustive research needed to investigate every option. But signals can lose their meaning over time, and that’s what has happened to education over the years.
The “I have a degree, therefore I am smart, hardworking, and well-to-do” signal made sense back when only 5 percent of males born in 1900 had a college degree. In today’s world, where nearly 40 percent of working-age Americans hold degrees, it doesn’t mean as much.
The truth is, the traditional education path is severely misaligned with the needs of today’s students and employers and is ripe for disruption.
Here are just a few reasons why:
The cost of college has risen to a level that’s vastly unaffordable for most of us.
For more than 30 years, higher education tuition has grown at double the rate of inflation. No wonder so many students now graduate with crushing debt loads.
Once you graduate (burdened by debt), it can be tough to find a good job.
The emphasis here is on “good.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau (June 2018 report), while only 3.7 percent of recent college grads age 22-27 are unemployed, a whopping 42.2 percent are underemployed.
Many degrees are useless to employers.
Non-vocational degree programs, like liberal arts and even business degrees in the absence of a career track headed for accounting, consulting, or investment banking, simply aren’t designed to make their students valuable in the workplace. Using them to accomplish that objective is like using your shoe to hammer in a nail — it might work, but it’s definitely not the best tool for the job. And employers know it.
Curricula are disconnected from the needs of today’s marketplace.
The content taught in college courses desperately needs to be reengineered to reflect the expectations of today’s employers, but accreditation and tenure serve as roadblocks to change. And a bigger problem is that most university programs were designed by and for academics, or, in the case of MBA-type programs, by and for big business. Both of them have very different needs from the small and mid-size companies that make up our job market.
College fails to develop the kinds of skills people need to thrive at work and in life.
New York University researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of students showed “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication during their first two years of college, and 36 percent showed no improvement over the entire four years of their education: “They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that are widely assumed college students should master.”
All of this is the bad news. The good news is there’s a lot of opportunity for students who can override the signals that still push them to go the traditional route, as well as for teachers and business leaders willing to go against the grain and participate in the impending disruption.
The current system will be replaced by a lifelong path that begins with one or two years of foundational and niche-focused “last mile” education — either taken separately or bundled together — with four more years spread over the rest of our lives and careers.
There’s no denying that the value of education is in decline. In fact, it’s a bubble that is set to pop. Degrees aren’t the all-access pass to a career that universities like to pretend they are. The cost is exorbitant, the returns are meager, and the entire situation is completely unsustainable. Those who are able to acknowledge this, and who have the courage to go another, smarter route, will be tomorrow’s winners.
Danny Iny is the author of the upcoming book “Leveraged Learning“. He is a lifelong entrepreneur, best-selling author, and CEO of the online business education company Mirasee. Best known for his value-driven approach to business, his nine published books include “Engagement from Scratch!“, “The Audience Revolution“, and two editions of “Teach and Grow Rich“.