Considering the bachelor’s degree in the digital age

Five multi racial students working around one laptop and talking

The bachelor’s degree has been the mainstay of the American educational system for decades. Any job with the potential for significant advancement requires one, but an economy heavily reliant on innovation has shifted employer priorities in the digital age. Graduates require skills training to compete in the current job market that is not traditionally offered in bachelor’s programs.

With an average student loan debt of around $33,000 and 44 percent of new graduates reporting underemployment, both students and parents are concerned that a bachelor’s degree no longer guarantees a return on its investment. Coupled with the ease and accessibility of online education and an employment sphere increasingly dominated by technology, this has forced universities to reconsider their undergraduate programs in an effort to better serve students. They must remain viable institutions themselves.

The bachelor’s degree as we know it presumes a traditional career trajectory: graduates begin at the bottom rung of a company and work their way up until retirement. Graduates today are far more likely to change careers several times, however, working for a variety of different companies throughout their lives. They will most likely work freelance for some portion of their careers. This dynamic increases the pressure on recent graduates to make themselves attractive to prospective entry-level employers, yet many employers report that the two qualities they most seek—critical thinking and strong communication skills—are in short supply.

Tufts University introduced its “4+1” program in 2015 in an effort to fill the gaps and provide these types of skills training. The program adds a built-in gap year for students, allowing them to spend a year doing service learning projects to increase their problem solving skills, as well as their experience communicating in a professional setting.

Many schools are exploring the introduction of online competency-based programs, leveraging the web-based technology that is now an integral part of university life. Texas A&M University launched one of the nation’s first such programs in 2014. Unlike a traditional program which grants a degree after four years of study and a set number of earned credits, competency-based programs award degrees after students have demonstrated skill and comprehension with presented materials. These programs cater to learners in a variety of life stages, and they offer an opportunity for students to progress at their own pace. Interest in and the promise of competency-based programs have ignited discussions about innovation, investments in new instructional models and tests, new digital platforms and operational models, and new degree programs. Technology is disrupting the very definition of what a college education means.

This disruption is also impacting K-12 education, which too could possibly change how students perceive and pursue higher education. Numerous high schools are making an effort to ensure that students and teachers have facility with technological equipment and vocabulary. President Obama asked Congress to fund a four billion dollar program in 2016 to ensure that all states can fund elementary and high school educational programs in computer science. Research shows that a half million jobs requiring computer science competency will be created over the next 10 years, from the agricultural industry to work in the tech sphere itself. Some critics believe that this plan is based on flawed presumptions about the future need for additional coders and programmers. With computer science emerging as a new basic skill, however, it is likely that both high schools and university programs will have to shift their course offerings in a variety of disciplines to make sure all young people are prepared for the demands of the professional world.  


To discuss this issue and others around employability in more depth, Pearson hosted a Ready for Work: Employability Summit at SXSWedu, March 9, 2016. Contribute to this conversation below or on Twitter at #SxSWedu.


About the Author

ToddHitchcockTodd Hitchcock provides strategic and operational leadership for Pearson’s Online Program Management. Todd has been working in the educational technology field for over 20 years. He has held a number of leadership roles in the United States and Canada including Technology Officer for a large suburban school district, Director of Account Management at Pearson eCollege, and Vice President of Global Services at Florida Virtual School. Todd is an advocate for educational improvement through innovative technologies. He currently is on the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), and he has served two separate terms on the Board of Directors of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Follow Todd Hitchcock on Twitter at @ToddAHitchcock.