Higher education is broken, let’s use the pandemic to fix it

Originally published to in Crain’s New York Business – August 11, 2020

With so many recent grads jobless, and carrying crippling debt, it’s clear that the old model of higher education no longer makes sense.

In the U.S. “degree inflation” means most jobs require a college degree, even if the skills required to do those jobs can be learned through other means. What’s more, prices of those degrees have been creeping up for years, leaving most students dependent on financial aid, scholarships or loans to reach graduation day. 

And when they reach that day, they’re not exactly standing on solid financial ground.

Before the pandemic, the average college graduate faced $29,000 of debt and earned an average starting annual salary of $50,000. Now, as we linger in the pandemic, 40%-50% of millennials and older Gen Zers are unemployed, and many colleges are shifting education models toward a virtual or hybrid learning model for the fall.

We need to consider that the future of work will rely increasingly on students with experiences beyond the piece of paper they earn at the end of four years. Building skills through training schools and vocational apprenticeships can have huge benefits for emerging professionals and those changing tact midcareer. This is especially true in the technology sector, where it also makes better financial sense for students: Intensive and part-time coding and data analytics boot camps can send graduates into the working world in less time and with higher earning potential than their B.A.- or B.S.-holding friends experience.

Even students in the sciences face long delays to real-life learning: When I was a college student studying in a premed track, for example, I was a junior before I even stepped into a hospital. I had paid tens of thousands of dollars of tuition before I realized I did not want to pursue a career in medicine. In Europe, by contrast, medicine is typically a four– to six-year undergraduate degree.

We need to expose students to the realities and challenges of their desired careers much earlier than the traditional educational system does, and we need to learn how to successfully incorporate virtual learning. We (and they) can’t afford not to. Most colleges today don’t require students to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year. By then, these students have missed out on two years of earning potential. And with the opportunity to earn salaries of $70,000-$100,000 coming out of a robust coding or data science boot camp, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table. With all the uncertainties forced upon us by Covid-19, students want to do real things with their time and money.

Nontraditional learning pathways have typically been pursued by adults looking to transition to a new career. Industry and education have generally existed in separate worlds. Now, we need to make these pathways an accepted model for younger, pre-career adults. This has to start with employers who broaden their vision of what makes a desirable educational background. The tech industry is already doing this. Emerging technologies, such as 5G and AI, are driving many big-name tech companies to consider vocational schools, virtual training, apprenticeships and upskilling programs.

Making more affordable models of education the norm for American businesses won’t just benefit high school graduates looking for time- and cost-effective education options. It will benefit working parents looking to grow into new careers but who can’t spend four full-time years in college, and it will benefit vulnerable individuals who need a new start.

I have seen that kind of success firsthand, with graduates of our programs who were homeless when they enrolled, and in our work with former inmates in software engineering and data science. Giving people these kinds of options for their future can help tear down barriers to entry in increasingly in-demand career fields.

Whatever their circumstance, those weighing educational and career options no longer have the luxury to commit four years of their lives to schooling that doesn’t train them for real careers or give them a high likelihood of job placement.

As we emerge from this crisis into a reality that looks a lot different than the one we left behind, we need to reconsider what a “typical” education looks like.

Tony Phillips is chief product officer at Galvanize. To learn more, visit galvanize.com/

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