The Biden administration’s recent decision to forgive as much as $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower is, in some ways, an admission that our country’s system of higher education is failing to live up to its promise. With millions in debt and little to show for it, the sentiment is being echoed across the United States. About two-thirds of students say college is not worth the cost. More than 70% of employers say that a college degree is no longer a reliable signal for assessing the quality of prospective employees.
The nation’s declining view of higher education’s worth has been accompanied by declining enrollment. There are now 1.4 million fewer students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But the economic hardship of the pandemic has only served to accelerate an already alarming trend. Over the last decade, nearly 3 million fewer students have enrolled.
While higher education remains one of the surest levers for economic mobility in our country, institutions have nevertheless lagged behind the demands of a rapidly evolving, increasingly skills-based economy and workforce. How Americans view the return on their investment in higher education is changing. Colleges and universities must now likewise reimagine how they determine and convey the true worth of a postsecondary degree. The good news is that technology can help fix higher education’s value leakage problem.
Tackling value leakage with transparency
Historically, higher education has heavily focused on measuring inputs, such as standardized test scores, grades, and other metrics that indicate student readiness. Institutions have placed far less emphasis on the kinds of exit measures that demonstrate the value they are creating for their students. Higher education and employers don’t speak the same language. They have struggled to articulate how academic credentials translate into the kinds of skills needed in the labor market, leaving students and employers with little insight into the tangible and lasting impacts of the college experience.
Meanwhile, institutions are realizing they must move from a paradigm of educating for knowledge to educating for skills. There is an urgent need to reskill and upskill the new majority learner workforce. These students are going to college to quickly gain the skills they need to advance in their careers. As institutions further explore this shift, the imperative to find new ways for students to demonstrate to employers their skills and competencies—and, in the process, the value of their credentials—will only grow more pressing.
A growing number of colleges and universities are realizing the importance of providing learners, educators, and employers with greater transparency around credentials. A coalition of more than 70 institutions has developed a tool designed to help prospective students gain a better understanding of the true costs of attending college while some institutions have turned to data science tools to predict the ROI on college degrees. Colleges, companies, policymakers, and agencies across 28 states are working to map the complex ecosystem of credentials. Colleges are also embracing new modes of skills measurement beyond the degree, including stackable credentials and microcredentials.
This is all made possible by advances in technology that allow institutions to leverage mountains of data to help learners navigate the most impactful pathways from college to careers. Machine learning is helping institutions more accurately predict the labor market value of the experiences they provide students and then translate those experiences into in-demand, marketable skills. AI-based automation is playing a critical role in managing the career pathway of learners. It’s never been easier to connect what students are learning to their potential in the workforce. With these predictive performance systems, institutions, first the first time, can now plot a learning journey providing a student pathway to a job-ready career.
Meeting non-degree needs
The University of Maine System was an early adopter of digital badges as a valid signal of skill attainment. It is now working with the Education Design Lab to implement a 21st Century Skills framework as part of an effort to transition to, and build capacity for, a more formal alternative credential badging system across all seven of its four-year institutions.
Meanwhile, Intel has partnered with universities and community colleges to create economic development programs that can help bridge crucial gaps in emerging technical education. Working with Intel, Central New Mexico Community College has created a non-credit certificate in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, while Miami Dade College is offering a similar for-credit certificate. Both institutions have shifted their academic program strategy to better accommodate the demand for short-form, non-degree programs that meet the immediate and rising demands of the workforce.
Higher education still holds enormous currency in today’s ever-evolving labor market, but it’s critical we take seriously the many questions that now persist around the value leakage and degrees. The answers to those questions can be found by solving the vexing challenge of translating educational experiences into a language that learners and employers alike can better comprehend. We must help students better understand the return on their educational investments in a fast-changing, modern world of work. If we fail to do so, the value of higher education will not only be lost in translation but lost to time.