In a recent discussion with a senior executive at a professional organization, I was told that the firm no longer requires a degree as a hiring prerequisite. This senior executive’s firm and others like his are now focused exclusively on competencies and attitude.
This approach is not new. The defense contractor community has used this model for years: identifying promising high school students and providing them with the tools to become industry-certified cybersecurity specialists.
So why are universities and their accrediting agencies still focused on degree completion as a necessary measure of performance?
At our start-up university, we have taken a business-first position in every aspect of our curriculum design and student experience. Micro-credentials, a way to develop competency, make it so students who have completed their sophomore year can be viable candidates to fill open employer positions. The key is working with employer communities to ensure that the student is fulfilling their academic objectives while earning an income.
For higher education purists, this approach may seem blasphemous; some of our own staff gawked when we took on this business-first approach. Their argument was that any student who is given the opportunity to get a professional job is no longer going to have an incentive to complete their education.
But this perspective lacks vision.
Think back to when you were 19 years old. If someone were to offer you a job with a starting salary of $50,000, this would seem to be the greatest coup in the world. The fear is students would then envision fast cars, nightclubs, and swanky living arrangements, setting up a barrier for any further academic pursuits.
The fallacy of this argument is students need to understand that quitting their formal education after two years would stunt their ability to be promoted or attain higher levels of leadership and, potentially, ownership in their chosen professions.
Our job as a university is to communicate the value of continuing an education, while simultaneously working to ensure that the student achieves the highest levels of presumptive leadership as early as possible in their career path. In many cases, universities must move the student’s objective from “job reliance” to “job creation” – a philosophy that will serve any individual admirably in their professional career.
After all, as we reason with any student, are you willing to stop your professional career potential and rely on step increases for life or, continue your education and one day lead this organization or, alternatively start your own enterprise? The difference is accruing cost-of-living increases from a $50,000 base or have the potential to earn in excess of $50,000 annually as the owner of your own business.
This problem is further exacerbated by the recent global pandemic. If higher education is going to remain relevant in the coming years, it will be necessary to think beyond degree completion and traditional performance measurements and focus on what students want – and need.