Degrees à la Carte: Higher Education in 2014

According to the Hechinger Report, higher education is "headed for a shakeout." Coming in at number three on Hechinger's list of 10 top education stories of 2013 is the trend of students starting to "nibble at the 'education buffet.'" In other words, students are cobbling their education and their degrees together from nontraditional sources rather than following the standard four-years-of-college path. This is still a new idea, but for reasons both practical and ideological, 2014 may very well be the year degrees go à la carte.

For many students, the idea of attending a single school for four years is neither practical nor desirable. There are several reasons behind this:

  • It's taking longer and longer to earn a bachelor's degree -- five or six years rather than four.
  • More jobs are requiring at least a bachelor's degree, with the percent expected to hit about two-thirds by 2018.

Put it all together, and you have an environment in which people need degrees to find reasonable work, but many don't have the time or the money, so either they don't go college or they take out huge student loans, but then after graduation can't find reasonable work anyway!

In 2013 students started to push back. Faced with prospect of acquiring large amounts of debt without the guarantee of a job, many students started exploring nontraditional ways to earn degrees, like taking courses online and looking for ways to get credit for their prior knowledge.

In May the Hechinger Report profiled one such student, calling her "a forerunner of a new type of college student, one who doesn't start and finish at a single brick-and-mortar campus, but picks and chooses credit toward a degree or job from a veritable buffet of education options." American Council on Education president Molly Corbett Broad told Hechinger that "we are at or approaching a point of significant transformation where you will be able to snap modules together from a wide array of choices, or link them in ways that produce what are sometimes called stackable credentials."

Educational technology companies have stepped up to the plate to provide new models of education, like MOOCs, and ways to meaningfully stack credentials. For example, MOOC providers Coursera, edX, and Udacity are all experimenting with verified certificates, Google and other tech companies are developing digital badges, and my company, Degreed, is investigating ways to track an entire lifetime's worth of learning.

Education is becoming more modular, and going forward, the focus will be on adapting our education systems to the new reality in which students develop valuable knowledge and skills in many different learning environments. This trend will likely drive the conversation in 2014 and perhaps beyond. Hopefully the result will be a system in which students can obtain a meaningful degree without breaking the bank, and use that degree to get a job.