The Purpose and Perception of Non-Skill College Degrees
It’s a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that a college education arms individuals with the knowledge and credentials to enter highly competitive and economically lucrative fields. Historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey advocated the importance of education to a democratic society.
In 1944, the GI Bill made college a reality for thousands of WWII vets who might not have been able to otherwise afford to attend college. Twelve years later, spurred by the Soviet Nations’ launch of Sputnik, the United States passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The act introduced the Perkins Loan that tens of thousands of students still utilize today.
Perception of Higher Education
Since the introduction of the bill, the idea that higher education is a vital part of a successful career has been cemented into US society. Parents, peers, teachers and popular culture reiterate the importance of a college education. In many cases, this social importance placed on college, has changed the conversation that many high schoolers have with relatives from, “Will you go to college?” to “What will you go to college for?”
The ability for millions to pursue education with student loans and the cultural importance placed on a college education is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, students have the ability to achieve their dream of being a doctor or a lawyer. On the other hand, half of college grads wind up drowning in student debt.
Due to the high number of students that are graduating with debt, the conversation about the importance and worth of higher education is shifting. In my college courses, we spent entire classes debating the merits of humanity degrees. “Should higher education teach you how to think and be a better person or should it teach you a skill?”
Purpose of Education
As a post-grad with a dubiously useful writing degree, I’m firmly in the “It should teach you skill” camp. And I’m not the only one. According to an infographic produced by Northeastern University, only 45 percent of students feel prepared to enter the workforce after college. That’s 55 percent of educational institutes’ patrons who are leaving dissatisfied with the education for which they paid large sums of money.
It’s not just the students; 39 percent of employers report that post-grads who have applied for jobs lacked the “right skills for even entry level jobs.”
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, admits this is a fault with many non-skill-based degrees like English literature or philosophy. While some universities have begun integrating more skill-based training to their classes, many students are still expected to teach themselves entry-level skills, gamble that they will find an employer who will train them, or go to graduate school for a more skill-based degree program.
Large corporations are beginning to take notice of this trend. In June of 2015, Penguin Random House publishing company decided to stop requiring college degrees as a hiring requirement. Not only did Penguin decide no longer to require a degree, they’ve made it clear that attending college will not affect a job candidate’s chance of success.
And I can see where they’re coming from. Universities and colleges are no longer the sole means of receiving the necessary skills and knowledge to land good jobs in fields that do not require a license to even practice. The internet has hundreds of free or cheap guides, classes, or eBooks that can easily be utilized by dedicated individuals. The widespread sale of computers and other technology has created forums for students to practice skills like web design themselves.
Adapting Education to the 21st-Century
Of course, some degrees will always have a large pool of potential students. Medical, science, engineering and law degrees require large pools of highly technical knowledge. Mistakes in these fields could turn deadly, so I don’t see the need for higher education for these degrees changing anytime soon.
As for the other degree programs not focused as much on skills, universities and colleges need to begin shifting how they think about education. In a perfect world, college would be affordable enough for students to dedicate four years to learning for the sake of learning, but that is not this world. And slowly the pendulum of how people perceive college as a key to success is shifting.
By adapting now, colleges can increase the chance they will remain a vital educational tool for all types of degrees.
Start slow. Here are a few strategies that universities can incorporate into their curriculum:
- Integrate the process of creating and running a blog or website into classes.
- Teach students to use various types of Word and Excel platforms (from Microsoft to Google Docs).
- Encourage students to pursue skill-based electives (like technical writing or HTML).
- Partner with non-profits or small businesses for educational projects that mimic internships.
- Integrate social platforms like Twitter and Pinterest into classes.
How Americans see the importance of higher education is a continually evolving conversation. While universities and colleges will always have students eager to pursue professional degrees, what society expects humanities degrees to deliver is slowly shifting. Higher education is too expensive to graduate without entry-level skills. By integrating more skill-based curricula, colleges can remain relevant for individuals not pursuing a high skill and knowledge careers like nursing or law.
Author Perspective: Student