On the surface, higher education is a nice idea. You go in, pick a subject you like, learn from the experts, and leave being job- and future-ready. This is why so many people decide to go to college. Yet just because so many people are doing it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do.
Many people would say you need a college degree to get a nice job. But there are not always clear competitive advantages in having one, particularly if almost half of the population has one.
The reality in today’s digital-first world is that we need to teach every generation how to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Why? So they can transform the future of work.
People experience a gap between what is valued in higher education and what is valued during work.
A lot of time and money is invested right after graduation to upskill and reskill graduates so they can actually learn skills required to be successful at work versus the skills that made them successful in the classroom.
And students spent a great deal of time trying to find an appealing job despite graduating from top programs. Many of them end up having to compromise with their choices.
No clear alternative to higher education has yet emerged. While there is no clear path to disrupting higher education, there are pain points which could be confronting. At some point a viable alternative will likely emerge and I see five reasons that make the case for demanding something different:
1. Employers need skills, not just knowledge or titles. The industrialized world is experiencing a job boom. There has never been a better time in history to find work. However, there is still a significant mismatch between the jobs people want and those that are actually available. Why? First, some of those jobs are unappealing to ‘overqualified’ graduates. Second, some jobs require a different skillset than what job seekers offer. Third, while the number of college graduates keeps rising, there is a general questioning of how higher education qualifications translate to work. A growing number of gratuates’ expressing reservations about job-readiness and potential to add immediate value to the workplace.
2. It is also clear that a large number of people often end up in careers that are not even aligned with their education.
3. Things get even more complicated when we take into consideration the fact that a substantial proportion of future jobs will be hard to predict. Except the fact that they will require a very different range of skills than displayed by most graduates.
4. That’s why the future potential of the workforce will depend on its ability to cultivate learnability, rather than displaying lots of college credentials.
5. Students want jobs, not knowledge or titles. The number one reason students have for investing time and money into a college education is to get a good job. Two third of them sees financial stability as the primary goal. The unemployment of gratuates’ may be low but under-employment is extremely common.
To be sure, there’s still an ROI to most college degrees, and you are generally better off having one than not having one. However, it is also true that the more graduates a nation produces, the less value-add there is in being a graduate.
Students have unrealistic expectations (understandably) about higher education.
Higher education market themselves as an engine of growth, employability and success. Higher education is still a promise to upgrade someone’s talent. Understandably, this produces high expectations, but it is just not feasible to fulfill them at scale. Not everyone can be a leader, a CEO, a manager, or a highly sought-after knowledge worker.
As society, we’ve come a long way, transitioning from monotonous assembly lines and routine jobs to flexible and meaningful careers and ‘the start-up of you’. But let’s not forget that it is just not possible to give everyone their dream job.
If our career aspirations surpass the available opportunities, and our self-perceived talents exceed our actual talents, we are surely destined to be miserable at work. Perhaps this explains the low employee engagement.
The equivalent in the world of love would be if everyone aspired to date an artist like Camila Cabello or Dean Martin: the result would be an epidemic of single people.
While research is the engine of growth and innovation it should not be an excuse to neglect the actual education offered to students, including the critical issue of preparing them for the real world.
In short, there is much that we need to rethink about the current model of higher education. Tomorrow belongs to the companies and individuals who are approaching education in parallel with work, with continuous loops of learning.
Success in the future won’t be defined by a degree, but by potential and the ability to learn, apply, and adapt.