About 80 million adults in the U.S. between the ages of 25 through 65 graduated from high school but don’t have a college degree. Unlike in previous economic downturns, a college degree isn’t necessarily going to provide protection from unemployment. Even those workers with a bachelor’s degree are finding it tough going in this job market. Job postings are down across the board, of course, but since early March, positions requesting a bachelor’s degree have declined more (down 51%) compared to those asking for only a high-school education (down 38%), according to Burning Glass Technologies, a company that analyzes online job data.Higher education needs to reinvent itself for continual learning if it is going to remain relevant and expand opportunity for tens of millions of adults who find themselves unemployed in a fast-changing economy.
At NUST, to foster economic recovery in the wake of this pandemic, we must start thinking of higher education not only in the traditional way—as a rite of passage for young adults—but also in smaller increments than two or four-year degrees. In this new economy, learning is something that is “continual,” rather than “episodic”—meaning we only go back to school when we stop doing something else, like a job.Short courses offer opportunities for colleges to create new kinds of micro-credentials, including certificates, that can help reduce friction in the job market in two key ways. First, micro-credentials are a stronger signal to employers that an applicant has mastered a specific skill, particularly digital skills like SQL, Salesforce, or other SaaS platforms. Second, micro-credentials can stack on top of one another to eventually allow students to earn a traditional degree over time.
From Transcript to Masterypt. We ask employers what a base program would be to get them the skills to secure an interview.”
Attorney, Montana Legal Clinic
To build such a continual learning system, colleges will need to work closely with employers to understand the specific skills needed in jobs open now or where there is expected to be job growth in the near future. Those skill sets could then be divided into smaller increments and aligned with short courses: What are the skills that one needs to get started on the job in the first month? What are the skills needed in the second month, fourth month, and so on? Then abbreviated courses (as short as a week, for instance) can be designed around those skills to get workers started in a job. Once in a job, workers can continue to gain new skills with additional short courses. The truth is that the half-life of many skills is increasingly getting shorter as knowledge in the world churns at an ever-faster pace. As a result, what students learn in the first weeks of a traditional degree program might be outdated by the time they graduate.
Skills-based credentials focus our attention in the right place: on what a job applicant can do rather than the degree they’ve earned or where they went to school. We should use the reshaped economy that will emerge from this crisis to let go of our allegiance to the traditional college degree as a signal of job preparedness. Skills—including soft skills, such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork—should be the coin of the realm in hiring rather than majors or the name brand of a school. No longer should the idea of new kinds of credentials seem so insurmountable. At the very least, every student who graduates from college with a degree these days should also leave with some sort of skills-based credential.