US states are turning their backs on bachelor’s degrees. Work is needed

To retain students, US institutions must give credit for learning that occurs in professional settings, say Stephen Handel and Eileen Strempel

April 7, 2023
Young builders study blueprint on a building site, illustrating workplace learning
Source: iStock

The governor of North Carolina is the latest leader to drop the requirement of a four-year college degree for most state jobs. He follows governors in Alaska, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Utah who issued similar edicts.

The private sector is also responding to more skills-based hiring practices, including companies such as IBM and General Motors. Such decisions have ostensibly been motivated by a historically tight labour market. But they represent yet another indication of higher education’s lost lustre, reflected in declining enrolments and public opinion polls showing historically low public support.

The implications for traditional higher education could not be clearer: skills-based, competency-centred learning must be a more central part of the college curriculum. Our higher education degrees must not only be linked more directly to the world of work, but we must also honour skills and knowledge gained on the job.

Higher education’s usual response to calls for closer workplace relevance is to cite statistics showing that people with bachelor’s degrees stand to earn a great deal more money over their working lifetimes than those without them. Globally, the World Bank reports that people with degrees are likely to earn twice as much as those with only high school diplomas. In the US, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that the gap in earnings between college and high school graduates has never been wider.

These statistics, however, are not proving especially compelling to prospective students in the US. Since autumn 2021, 1.23 million students have departed colleges and universities. On top of that, there are 39 million working adults with some college education, but no degree. All of these people presumably came to higher education understanding its value, but probably found that earning a degree was expensive, inconvenient or, worst of all, irrelevant to the trajectory of their working lives.

The irony is that we know how to serve these people. For decades, certain colleges and universities have recognised the value of workplace-based learning by encouraging their students to participate in internships. These institutions have found ways of rigorously assessing that “on-the-job” learning and awarding academic credit for it. Others should do the same, actively seeking to award workplace-based academic credit for those who seek skills to become part of the economic mainstream.

Institutions can recognise credit for learning gained at the workplace using Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), which was developed decades ago but has rarely been applied. Longitudinal studies by the Lumina Foundation have demonstrated that using PLA almost doubles degree completion rates, from 27 per cent to 49 per cent. PLA also saves students money by decreasing their time to degree. And for institutions there is revenue gain because students are more likely to persist and to graduate.

The greatest impacts are experienced by historically under-represented student groups. For example, this same Lumina study revealed that only 17 per cent of black students without PLA completed degrees, while 62 per cent with PLA graduated. A PLA approach to linking jobs to credentials is a dramatic driver of positive outcomes. The only question is why we as a nation don’t mandate it at all institutions receiving federal funding (and that’s all institutions).

The post-pandemic economy will remake traditional colleges and universities, whether those institutions subscribe to its dictates or not. History shows, however, that higher education can respond to the needs of a changing society. As it did in the aftermath of the Second World War – meeting returning veterans’ need to earn degrees and credentials to build a post-war America – our post-Covid higher education future must embrace a similar commitment to address the needs of working adults.

The mass abandonment of higher education’s pre-eminent credential, the four-year degree, is more than a brand failure. In the words of Temple University president Jason Wingard, it is a signal that traditional colleges and universities in the US must “change or die”.

This does not mean abandoning academic rigour or kowtowing to industry demands. Rather, it involves recognising the learning that happens in work environments (including in the military) in a knowledge-based economy. This will help to ensure that our 39 million higher education students complete the degree they seek and that the country gets the workforce it needs.

Stephen J. Handel is a senior programme officer with ECMC Foundation in Los Angeles. Eileen Strempel is the inaugural dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music at the University of California, Los Angeles. They are the authors of Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021).

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Reader's comments (3)

But universities--some--have always done this, and it has been increasing A little research, please. please
Bachelor's degrees have become increasingly irrelevant in technology majors as universities give a cookie cutter approach not caring at all how fluent students are in many different coding languages that they may have been using daily for years. Students are expected to waste years learning skills they already know and cannot test out of, graduating them exactly where they started. Our son is in this boat, having finished an AA and an AS through dual enrollment, is now taking basic coding courses for the third time in order to finish a Bachelor's despite having been employed as a software engineer from the age of 16 and his AS in Computer Programming and Analysis. If colleges want to keep their customers then they need to get over their arrogance and actually teach something students don't already know after finding out what they already do.
In South Africa, this is called Recognition of Prior Learning, RPL, and it is fairly wide spread. I did a doctoral thesis on it in 2007! So not a new idea. It's the best way to bring non traditional (mature and minorities) into the antiquated HE system and it saves time and money.


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