Rising cost of degrees puts higher education at stake

Universities are failing to live up to the expectation that they will give a young person a job, a spouse and a certificate that explains who they are and what they know, the WISE conference in Qatar was told last Thursday.

At a time of dramatic change, when a college degree is expected to cost US$62,000 on average by 2025, higher education qualifications are being questioned as never before, said Dr Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation.

“The future of higher education is at stake,” she said.

With more than one-quarter of graduates unemployed in the United States, young people are no longer finding that a degree leads to a job. Yet jobs are available, said Dr Yowell, and employers talk of a talent shortage.

The skills needed for creativity – persistence, collaboration, problem-solving and analysis – are not always covered in degree courses, she said.

What is happening now is that young people are doing a lot of their learning outside college and university in, for example, non-governmental organisations, museums and with other groups.

That is why the MacArthur Foundation together with the Mozilla Foundation is working on a badge system to represent all the other learning that the student has done, “so we can make visible that learning is happening”, she said.

“Badges can represent the kinds of learning that might be useful for jobs or that can connect to academic careers.”

Pointing out that today we have knowledge at our fingertips, Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, said that a degree was now a very limited way to show who you are.

“You need a more nuanced way to represent that in a way that employers will trust,” he said.

Most universities were failing to live up to the four aims of a university – that they provide education for sustainable employment, conduct research, further personal development and prepare for active citizenship in a democracy – he added.

Dr Yasar Jarrar, a partner of the global consulting firm Bain & Company in Jordan, agreed that a degree did not tell you much about what people could do. “The question is whether there is a better way for job-seekers to shine and for employers to pick the best professionals they require.

“We won’t see a change in the degree, just a change in how people are represented to make it more accurate.”

He also said that a degree from a top university such as Harvard remained a very important badge. “Degrees remain essential to getting a job in this region,” he said.