The Higher Education industry is hyper-focused on justifying the cost of education with how it correlates to the jobs graduates get. Along those lines, credentials and micro-credentials are a craze right now. Executive leaders have come to believe that credentials are the key to the future. And they very well may be right.

When I was in graduate school, I remember being bent out of shape that I was paying a lot of money for my education only to have to pay some third party to study their content so I could earn their certification that would ostensibly provide me with the requisite skills for the job market. I even remember having a conversation with a faculty member about it. 

“Why can’t we just earn the credential here and make that count toward my degree?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, but there’s really nothing we can do about it.”

Well, now there is, and that’s good news for students. Some universities are integrating credentialing into their degree programs. It’s a great idea and a long time coming.

We should embrace this new benefit. It’s good for students and it’s good for employers. But we should pump the breaks on the crusade to measure education by job-placement or earning power. These are not the only metrics for evaluating the value of an education. They are just seemingly easy ones. It’s tempting to say that the return on investment for an education is how much money you’ll earn as a result of that education, because it’s such a simple quantification. It’s the obvious solution to finding a way to justify the out-of-control costs of higher education, but there are many factors to keep in mind when thinking about the value of education. Below are just a few.

It Ain’t the Degree, It’s the Pedigree

One, there may be a correlation between where a person goes to school and how much they earn afterward, but that may not be a true indication of the quality of the education they have received. For instance, the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse rankings puts Princeton in their top spot due in large part to the metric of “how much it will improve the salaries they earn after receiving their diploma.” But what if—and hear me out here—what if there were firms hiring Princeton grads at high salaries simply because they were Princeton grads and not because they showed any particular promise or skillset inherent to the education they received at Princeton. I don’t mean this as a slight to Princeton or its grads. Nor do I mean to critique the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse folks who make it clear that their ranking is just one way of helping consumers make a decision, and that it is hardly the last word on the matter. I only mean to point out that it’s important to recognize that pedigree still carries a lot of weight in our culture. That can muddy value determination.

Don’t Distract from the Real Problem

Justifying high costs of education by pointing to earning power sidesteps the real problem: the high cost of education. In our breathless struggle to show that college is worth it, we lose sight of what we should really be trying to do, which is making college more accessible, chiefly by making it more affordable.

Employers Don’t Always Know What’s Best for Them

Yes, credentials are helpful for your career. But do you know what’s even more helpful? Knowing how to think critically and solve problems on your own or with a team. Those skills are harder to teach in the workplace than technical or “hard” skills. Human skills or competencies like attention to detail or taking initiative are what students will not learn from Higher Ed institutions that obsess over providing the right badges or credentials that students can put on their resumes and profiles. Employers can be meticulous about making sure all the technical skills they think people need before they are hired are covered in a job posting, and then they lament the fact that all their new hires don’t know how to communicate with co-workers or manage their own workload. Those are the competencies that people should have been learning in college, rather than focusing solely on collecting a menagerie of digital badges. Here’s a tip: if you want people who are change agents and innovators, you’re not going to find them by filtering for certifications in cloud programming.    

College is about More than Job Prep

We do not know what tomorrow will bring, no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise. The skills needed today are not the skills we will need in four years. It would make more sense that employers teach people the skills they need today. What higher education has done well historically is teach people how to be good learners, problem solvers, and innovators. Learning by rote is not useful in a highly agile work environment.

Getting stuck in a frame of mind where Higher Education strives to be a pipeline for what employers think they want today is a trap.

To be clear, I strongly believe employers still have an obligation to develop competencies like communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and many others, but that will be a much heavier (and more costly) lift if people don’t enter the workforce with at least a foundational comprehension of human development.

Higher education is about higher learning. That is, it’s about thinking on a higher level. Getting stuck in a frame of mind where Higher Education strives to be a pipeline for what employers think they want today is a trap. It ends up focusing all the attention and resources on the disciplines that seem to, on a superficial level, supply the technical skills needed for the workplace of the present, and thereby neglects the disciplines that develop the competencies and skills that consistently produce the best actual thinkers, innovators, and change agents.

People who are not great thinkers or visionaries love to minimize the value of disciplines like philosophy, music, languages, or anything in the arts. Like bullies, they get their false sense of power by pushing down other people. The truth is those disciplines are the disciplines that drive the future, because those disciplines teach people how to see things from different perspectives, understand the world in a different way, examine how human beings communicate and think, and everything else that really makes the world tick. That scares some people because it means the world is way more complex and nuanced than anything that could be reflected in a badge or certificate. If that’s true, how will we measure what’s really important? How will we know what the future will bring? How will we prepare for tomorrow?

I think those kinds of questions are maybe the very problem. The point of Higher Education is not to prepare for tomorrow. The reason we ever even started this bold and audacious venture of developing great thinkers was not to prepare or respond to what’s going on now. The point of Higher Education is to drive tomorrow. It is to develop people who create the future. It is to instill in people moral and ethical character, passion, empathy, and curiosity. When we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the true value of Higher Education.

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