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The Tragic Reality of 4-Year Degrees

The modern-day education system may be at the end of its vaunted run as a pipeline for employer talent. I’m never one to declare something dead before its day, but the way things are going, workforce development companies like my own are metaphorically preparing to attend a funeral. I’m going to ask readers to prepare with us as we take a hard look at some of the topics the education system refuses to address, demanding a legitimate response from those who are holding the line for four-year universities. As a workforce development company, some may consider my opinion bias on the matter, but the argument is nearly flawless in its execution and may leave you pondering the question that’s on everyone’s mind. Is a degree still worth it?

Past Their Prime

There’s no shame in admitting when something has outlived its usefulness. Kids outgrow clothing, cars break down, and the needs of a society always change. Some tools are built for a specific time and purpose, and most scholars would agree, the education system was built when factory jobs were the greatest source of prosperity in America. Because of this fact, you often hear the term “factory-model education,” or “industrial era schools,” to describe the foundation of the education system put in place in the mid 19th century. Some argue that there isn’t a direct correlation between the industrial revolution and modern education, but that’s not exactly relevant to the argument that the system is outdated.

During the peak of its usefulness, the education system was a way to guarantee anyone completing the requirements emerged with a baseline knowledge level that would benefit almost any employer. These benefits were all but guaranteed because the lack of diversity in occupations left most Americans with very few choices for a path to a better life. According to the 1920 Census, manufacturing and agriculture jobs accounted for almost 60% of active occupations. The U.S. also saw a four-fold increase in manufacturing jobs between 1880 and 1920 according to a research paper by Charles Hirschman and Elizabeth Mogford, published by the National Institute of Health.

So whether or not you believe the term “factory education” is meant to describe the purpose-built nature of the education system or the methodical way in which it produces learning outcomes, it doesn’t change the fact it’s essentially a one size fits all model. At no fault of its own, a one size fits all model was the only way for the education system to scale to its current size, but it may no longer be useful for today’s population, and retooling it for the demands of the modern workforce is proving to be a daunting task.

False Advertising

Manufacturing Jobs Chart
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The remnants of the Industrial Revolution have long since faded in the U.S., with the majority of manufacturing shifting to offshore, and the population of workers currently employed in the manufacturing sector dipping to 8% of nonfarm payroll in 2018.  The promise of higher standards of living and pay associated with these kinds of jobs also disappeared, as Zip Recruiter reports the average annual salary of a factory worker is ~$27,000, placing them ~$5000 below the U.S. median income level. 

Interestingly enough, the education system adopted similar marketing points to factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution, and even though the manufacturing sector has moved on from those talking points, the education system has not. A quick internet search for the benefits of higher education almost always returns the same talking points:

  1. More freedom to choose a career path
  2. Higher average income
  3. More advancement opportunities

The summation of their talking points is a “better life.” As someone who has spent a significant amount of his career in the marketing department, I applaud the length of time the education system has carried on touting outcomes they cannot directly control. In a traditional situation, we would call this false advertising. 

Even if at some point the statistical data proved these outcomes likely, an indirect correlation between the two is a best-case scenario, and a shift in employment needs was bound to separate inputs from desired outcomes at some point. As the type of employee organizations desire shifts from those with generalized knowledge to those with highly specialized skill sets, individuals burdened with student debt and a lack of employment opportunities definitely have a reasonable claim for false advertising.

The Demand for Skills Increases

The widely advertised benefits of higher education have been taken on faith for the last couple of generations, prompting parents to steer their children away from trade schools, artistic pursuits, and jobs that involve creating things with their hands. The result has been a generation with the highest college graduation rate in history, leaving the U.S. with a shortage of skilled workers to fill many of the highest-paying jobs still available. The most notable of highly-skilled sector jobs that remain available are those in the Technology sector, which is leveraging their disproportionate labor/income ratio to monopolize desirable occupations.

As the demand for tech workers increases, the sector is beginning to create its own workforce pipelines with certifications for Salesforce Admins, Google IT, CompTIA Security, etc., and it’s creating a divide between job seekers and traditional education. Considering the higher costs, longer duration, and lack of security offered by pursuing employment through traditional education, the perceived value of a college degree is disappearing by the year, month, and hour. So where does this leave the role of universities? Is a college degree still worth it? These are all valid questions, and ones that I can’t answer in 1000 words or less.

What I can tell you is that RTR Digital is open to finding a method to work with the educational institutions to develop a way for learners to acquire skills and generalized knowledge at a single location. Right now, those graduating with a college degree are offering employers no discernable way to gauge their skill set outside of customized assessments. To be honest, it’s probably going to have to be educational institutions that find more flexibility in their processes, as their leverage in the situation continues to disappear. As long as the financial burden imposed on those who took the traditional path continues to be a main topic of discussion, the demand for society to still view higher education as a source of positive outcomes will fall on deaf ears