As the unemployment rate and levels of student debt increase, we must ask ourselves whether we’re simply in an economic rut, or whether there is something more structural happening below the surface. With billions of dollars spent on education, why then are we seeing this apparent skill mismatch? Is there a more efficient way to be making such an investment, both in terms of dollars and time?

Before addressing this obviously large question, we must first acknowledge that college serves many functions, both for the individual and society at large.

For some it is a time for self-discovery and exploration, while for others it is a time for focused study. For some the topics addressed are conceptual and philosophical in nature, while for others they are very tangible and skill-based. And for some the opportunity cost of four years is not very high, while for others it is immense.

Given these numerous and sometimes conflicting purposes, how can one say that there is one model, a traditional four-year college education, that addresses all of them? Is it not dangerous to assume that the prescription - a four-year college education - is the correct one for every individual in every situation?

To be fair, alternatives do exist in the market - vocational schools teach pre-professional skills, community colleges offer two-year degrees, and online schools allow students to customize what and how they study. But the issue remains that a college degree is still widely viewed as a powerful binary signal as to an individual’s qualifications; those not holding one are consequently burdened with either accepting their lower status or forced to demonstrate their qualifications via other, less common and more costly means.

Given how different today’s society is when compared with that of a century or two ago, why must we assume that the system that has endured is still the optimal one? As a purely academic exercise, if we were to design the higher education system from scratch without any constraints, what might it look like?

Before beginning, it is essential to outline the underlying assumptions & guiding principles of this paper’s proposal:

  • Individual motivations for achieving post-secondary education are: 1) diverse, and 2) best understood by the individual themself
  • These individual motivations, however, are not absolute; in other words, they are subject to evolution
  • Individual abilities and preparedness upon graduating are not uniform
  • The value of time is not uniform
  • The requirements to be “proficient” are not uniform across fields of study; additionally, within each field itself there may or may not be a universally accepted notion of proficient; rather, there may be a spectrum of proficiency

These assumptions and guiding principles seem support the hypothesis that there is a role for stronger market forces within the higher education system. What might a system look like then? Here is one proposal:

Unit of Measure To bridge the gulf between having/not having a degree (incredibly general), a major (often very similar within a specific field), and individual classes (too granular to be of much use), students and prospective employers need a new way to signal/differentiate qualifications.

In many instances a project, such as a thesis, is used to bridge this gap and demonstrate depth of knowledge. The challenge, however, is that these are often very narrow in nature, so while it is good for demonstrating the ability to go deep on a specific topic, it doesn’t communicate anything about other aspects of the field, or even other fields, the student has studied.

How can this be addressed? To start, change the standard metric of achievement from a binary “graduate / not graduate,” or even a particular major, to one centered on the completion of tracks of study. The length of these tracks could vary, serving as a de facto proxy for the degree of depth (e.g., a six-month study in political science would be regarded differently than a two-year one).

Students win because they can more effectively customize their education and differentiate themselves, while prospective employers win because they have a get a more complete (and standardized) understanding of the educational qualifications of potential applicants.

Many educational providers, including community colleges, for-profit colleges, and online schools, have started to take this approach, but it has yet to penetrate traditional universities.

Individual Choice Allow the individual user to determine “how much” higher education they need - for some, that might be enough to develop a very specific skill, while for others it may be preferable to spend time exploring before committing to any one field. Any number of reasons could compel a student to pursue more or less than the standard four-years of study, including, but not limited to their personal financial situation, desired professional field, clarity of what they wish to study, and general level maturity.

Changing the standard unit of measure from a degree/major to a la carte tracks of study, as described above, would allow students to customize their education and break away from the nearly-universal “four year” degree without fear of sending unintended signals to the market.

Method of Study To facilitate the above approach, it would be necessary to evolve the method of study from “broad studies,” wherein students may take up to 5 unrelated classes at a single time, to “sequential deep studies” where related topics are studied for an extended, though varied, period of time (i.e., the a la carte tracks described above). In addition to allowing students to customize their education experience, as described above, this approach would also allow for a more immersive learning experience (i.e., less multitasking).

Nature of Fields Continuing with the themes described above, fields should be fluid in nature rather than tied to static departments. This way, they are forced to succumb to market pressures both from students and prospective employers (indirectly through students). In this world the traditional notion of a “liberal arts” vs. “pre-professional” education is eliminated, because at the end of the day the end-goal of the system should be to impart knowledge and new ways of thinking to the individual, with some fields leaning more heavily on one or the other (but hardly ever exclusively only one).

Such a system is obviously not without drawbacks, however. Specifically,

  • First Mover Challenge: in the hyper-competitive world of higher education, being the first to shift away from a traditional four-year degree is fraught with risk; offering such an approach in parallel to the traditional program could allow schools to slowly implement the system while monitoring the outcomes of graduates
  • Diminished Time to Explore: if students are forced to begin pursing tracks of study from Day 1 they have less time to explore fields they might not be familiar with yet would be drawn to; to overcome this, it would be critical that introductory tracks be offered to allow students to sample fields before committing to more in-depth studies, or even require students to spend the first six months taking a survey of potential areas of study
  • Introduction of Uncertainty: allowing academic programs to be fluid in nature creates uncertainty and makes long-term resource allocation difficult

Some universities have already started to move in this direction, through programs that allow students to have “focus areas” within majors or even create their own majors, but the lack of universality and standardization puts an undue burden on students to make sure potential employers recognize these. If the United States’ higher education system, long the envy of the world, wishes to continue to serve as both a destination and creator of world-class talent, it must recognize that it must constantly evolve to meet the rapidly changing needs of the market. The above presents one such hypothesis for how these institutions could put in place a structure that would allow for constant evolution and avoid marginalization.