Thursday, May 8, 2014

Redefining "Finished"

When are students finished with college? 

My personal circle is filled with old college friends, and many of us are finishing or have earned our masters' degrees, and some have begun or even earned a Pharm. D. or Ph. D. The finishline for us was not necessarily the end of a bachelor's program.

The discussion around student retention and college completion has turned to those students who enroll in college but don't finish, and what value that enrollment had for them. This is a terribly overdue conversation that post-secondary has been avoiding for a long time. Generally, we think of the finish line as the end of a program and a degree. Colleges like that model because then we feel that our students have been through the educational wringer, and there's tuition dollars to speak of. But is that truly where students stop? Or need to stop? 

I came across this article the other day from the Brookings Institution: Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad? . It's an intriguing piece that brings up a worthwhile point: if workers with some college earn significantly more than those with no college, is it worth it to finish a degree? There's little doubt left that, even as tuition and fees rise and financial aid capacities shrink, investing in a college education will pay off. But if a worker can increase his/her earnings with even one semester of college, what motivation is there to continue through the end of a degree program? Or, is there enough to entice a student to earn a degree? This is an especially important question to consider for those students with risk factors - which comes down to most students in any institution that's not a 4-year university.

And, once again, we must question the changing purpose of higher education. This change from an institution of enlightenment, academia, and philosophy to more of a learning laboratory for experiments in applying concepts for the workplace has been rather painful so far. But to stay relevant, higher education must embrace this change and take on its charge. This change has made education even more susceptible to market forces, and a student's willingness to pay tuition now relies on his/her expected value and an employer's perceived value. If employers award higher earnings to workers with some college, not necessarily a degree, what do they truly value? The degree? Or the fact that they went to college? 

This is not to say that earning a degree won't correlate with higher earnings. The article provides this chart to demonstrate the difference:

Earnings by Highest Level of Educational Achievement

Clearly, there is a significant change from high school to some college, and between an associate's and a bachelor's (and a GIANT leap from bachelor's to professional...that's for a different day). So what is the difference between some college and an associate's degree? Consider this:

  1. The purpose of college, especially a two-year program, is now to help students obtain employment. That usually means they need a job, and they need a job ASAP. 
  2. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most students earning an associate's degree need more than 24 months to finish their program. 
  3. Industry is still reporting a shortage of skilled workers. 
  4. Workers with some college can earn close to what they would earn with an associate's degree. 
Why are some students taking more than 24 months to finish an associate's when they could fill the jobs gap with "some college"? Could we reconsider what we offer for credentials? For example, could we perhaps create a credential that could be completed in the "some college" amount of time? Might we revisit the apprenticeship model? Does the future of college - and thus closing the job skills gap - lie in a change in the way we give out credentials? 

Improved technology, increasing industry involvement, and developing research has and will continue to offer more options to do this. Colleges need to be open and flexible enough to answer that in a way that will keep them relevant in the long-run, or face losing their value.

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