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Higher education in the new age

Most people go to university with the aspiration to better their career prospects and to be able to earn more money over the course of their lifetime. Is this genuinely valid or just our ingrained perception? Are students stacking up debt chasing those perceptions instead of being encouraged to grow genuine skills and to work in a career that can bring them personal fulfillment as well as a solid paycheck?
 
New Zealand universities offer good value for money when compared internationally. Students graduating with a bachelor's degree are stacking up debts in the vicinity of $21,000 to $28,000 dollars. In other countries, that same education might cost you in excess of $100,000 so we aren’t doing too badly comparatively, but a “bargain” doesn’t change the fundamental question: Is attending university to obtain a degree at a cost of several years and this level of debt actually the right choice maybe coming out with little in the way of real world skills? How do we help our young student’s to better prepare for and pursue relevant paths as they transition out of high school?  How do we create a society that values a broad range of skills and choices?
 
Studies correlate higher learning with higher lifetime earnings, but how much of this is due to genuine value-added from a university education versus built-in bias within the system, such as minimum education requirements to apply for a position or promotion where arguably experience and skill yield a more capable candidate? 
 
I admit to being one of the many people who completed their degree for the qualification, not the learning.  I recently finished my Bachelor of Applied Management, and wanted to get this qualification mainly to tick a box that I had left unfinished when I was young.  I had studied business and accounting, but left in my third year to travel. Although I enjoyed the journey and sense of accomplishment in completing my degree, it wasn’t new learning at this stage of my life – just validating it on paper. This led to me think about the relevance of the courses to today's students and the rapidly changing landscape they will face throughout their future careers.
 
With some professions there is a general acceptance of the need for an underpinning formal education. If you aspire to be a doctor, lawyer, or similar then you have to walk the university path, but what about the many other career fields?
 
A number of students that I have canvassed say something along the lines of “I need this qualification to get the promotion or get the pay increase I want, but it’s completely irrelevant to what I will be doing.” or “I have the degree but I have no idea how to do the job.”
 
Are the universities upfront about job prospects for their degree programs? Is the program a stepping stone to professional qualification? Qualifying for employment in a directly related skill-shortage career field?  Will you need to do additional training or post-graduate studies to be realistically employed in your field of studies? Will employers require work-experience and, if so, does the program connect students with cooperative employment education programs or internships?  Indeed, how many universities create links to prospective employers and help facilitate students into jobs. Shouldn’t that be part of the package these universities are selling to prospective students?
 
How much of the current curriculum is dedicated to actually preparing the student for actual employment? Are graduates equipped not only with book-learning but also with the so-called “soft skills” necessary to function in real-world jobs, things like teamwork, the ability to work collaboratively, effective communication, resiliency and grit, optimism, pro-activity, or the ability to actually sell and close deals.
 
Are the courses on offer still relevant today and equipping students for a world where technology is changing so quickly?  The pace at which technology and with it media, marketing, and much more is changing in the digital age is faster than any single human being can grasp.  Much of what was relevant just a few years ago has little application today and no one wants to waste time and money to learn material irrelevant to their future career. 
 
Are similar degrees from all institutions actually of similar value? Although this question applies between traditional universities, it isn’t just a competition between brick-and-mortar universities anymore. New online universities and higher education institutes are emerging all around the world and they are challenging the hallowed halls of traditional academia.  University lecture halls and campus life now compete with the flexibility of online learning, which has improved significantly in quality.  Traditional universities allow students to to network, interact, collaborate, and socialise with instructors and peers in person.  On-line courses are limited to mostly virtual interaction, but the study programs come with much greater flexibility. Online learning requires a high degree of self-direction, motivation, and discipline but for many, this could be a viable alternative to accommodate study alongside family, employment, and other constraints.  If traditional universities fail to adapt, they are likely to lose out.  If governments and regulators don’t control the quality and consistency of all programs, on campus or online, everyone loses – except for dubious institutions cashing in at the expense of their students and their futures.  Taxpayers are supporting the student loan program, so we all have a vested interest in ensuring that investment in quality education leads to quality employment.
 
An interesting case study in doing things differently is the American online institute Missionu, (https://www.missionu.com). Missionu was founded by Adam Braun who had previously founded Pencils of Promise a not-for-profit which has established over 400 schools in third world countries. When Adam came back to America and met his future wife, she had just left college with an unfinished degree as she couldn’t justify adding to the six-figure debt that she had already racked up. He saw her crippling situation and realised that the system was broken and set about establishing a modern college alternative.   Braun’s goal was to ensure that learning transferred directly into livelihood, and he has reinvented the pathway from education to employment with his model.  He works directly with large employers to see what they want from their future workforce. If a student makes it through their rigorous selection process, doesn’t just rely on the traditional entry requirements of universities but looks more at the whole person and what they have to offer, then Missionu invests in that student for one year. This model requires no investment up front from the student. Missionu provides them a relevant course of study which entails a comprehensive education around preparing to enter the workforce as well as the normal course content.   When a student, after graduating, lands a job earning $50,000 US dollars or more a year then and only then does that student begin repaying their studies with 15% of their income for a period of three years. This model puts the onus on the University to support getting good outcomes for their students in order to survive themselves, and this approach really appeals to me. 
 
One thing is certain in this crazy, rapidly evolving world we are living in. Nothing will be as it once was and, if universities want to survive, then they must adapt because students want to focus on the most direct, career-centric path from education to employment and other options are starting to evolve.


 

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