Are College Degrees Becoming Obsolete?

December 5, 2019
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Author: Tyran Saffold Jr

For decades, college degrees were the only way into corporate America. Today, online learning platforms like Udemy and skills certificates offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) provide an alternative. On Udemy alone, there are over 30 million students and 245 million course enrollments. The courses are taught by more than 50,000 qualified instructors. And with tuition costs rising faster than inflation, those who endeavor to expand their skillset can now pursue a less traditional route.

Through the advent of these online classes and various skills boot camps, could the four-year-degree become less valuable?

Online Classes and Skills Boot Camps Could Replace Traditional Degrees

Not Keeping Pace

Pew Research found in the “State of American Workforce” survey that 33 percent of employer respondents expressed no confidence that current training and education programs were evolving quickly enough to match the skill demands needed by 2026.

Most sources point to educational programs as the reason behind the skills gap. However, pointing the finger will not solve the problem. Sifting through pools of college graduates can be disheartening if none of them possess the skill needed to perform certain job duties. This skills gap has led Human Resource departments to begin examining new ways to find talent.

Diamond in the Rough

“We are now in the transitional stage of employers gradually reducing their prejudice in the hiring of those (with degrees), and moving in favor of (those) who, in the workplace, demonstrate greater proactiveness, initiative, discipline and collaboration—because they studied online,” said Fredric Litto, professor emeritus of communications from the University of Sao Paulo.

“It shouldn’t matter how you picked up your skills, just that you did,” said David Blake, cofounder of the learning platform Degreed. Today, companies like Google, IBM and Costco have lowered or even removed degree requirements from job postings. As businesses compete heavily to locate and retain talent in their markets, there may be an answer in non-traditional education.

Kenneth, for example, took advantage of non-degree training to advance his skill set. He currently works as a data scientist for a software company in Dallas, TX. According to his manager, he is excelling in his role with no formal coursework in the field. “I got started down a data engineering path because my previous employer offered a Structured Query Language (SQL) training course to those who were interested. I jumped at the opportunity. Once I realized how much I loved data, I made it known to my managers that I wanted to work in that field.”

Kenneth is currently building product infrastructure at a rate that rivals the production of two data engineers. “After my former employer gave me the opportunity, I kept pushing myself. I taught myself outside of work. I had a passion for data. That was coupled with the drive to study different languages and algorithms. I did all that in my free time outside of work.”

Skills-Based Hiring

In a tight labor market, skilled employees are harder to come by. If your current hiring requirements include a four-year degree, you could be at a competitive disadvantage. U.S. Census educational attainment data reports approximately 67 percent of the population does not have a bachelor’s degree. Which means, with certain degree requirements, you could be eliminating two-thirds of your potential employees.

Although Kenneth attained a bachelor’s degree, he works in a field that has nothing to do with his course of study. According to his manager, “He has skills that you can’t teach. He also showed that he could do the work. He outpaced data scientists with master’s degrees, doctorates and other achievements. These guys, on paper, should’ve been able to do the work, but Kenneth did what they couldn’t do. And he did it in less time.”

A commitment to learning with the passion to develop their skills could advance a career path, even more so than a formal education. This could become the new prerequisite for the next generation of employees and may facilitate closing the country’s skills gap and labor shortage.