Prelude, Percolation, and Preparation

As a general rule, I don’t believe that colleges and universities understand why students are willing to go tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to attend them. My experience has been that individual faculty are even less likely to understand these reasons than the leaders of their institutions.

Faculty want college to be a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement for students that catalyzes a lifelong love of learning and blossoms into genuine curiosity about the world around us; a time in which students develop critical thinking, civic-mindedness, and other attitudes, values, and skills that will help them develop into truly wonderful human beings.

However, not many people are willing to pay $20k or $50k or $200k for this collection of experiences alone. Most people are willing to invest financially in a college education because a college education pays a clear financial return. We can bemoan this instrumental or even transactional view of education, but bemoaning it doesn’t change it.

An interesting question to ask is “why is a college degree the gateway to greater financial success and stability?” Among the many sophisticated ways this question might be answered, there is one ruthlessly practical way in which the relationship between degrees and earnings is both codified and enforced – degree requirements in job descriptions.

Employers just refuse to hire people without college degrees into many kinds of positions. By requiring a college degree for a person to even be eligible for a position, employers create demand for college degrees. And it is this decision by employers – and this decision alone – that makes college degrees so financially valuable. Would you spend $100k to become eligible for a job if there were less expensive ways to gain that eligibility? Probably not.

Another interesting thought exercise, then, is to consider the question: what would happen to the value of a college degree if employers stopped requiring college degrees? More specifically, how would students’ willingness to pay for college degrees change if employers stopped requiring college degrees? (Here’s a refresher on the relevant economics.) And how might the higher education ecosystem change if students’ willingness to pay shifted downward dramatically? And what if that happened relatively quickly?

I’ve been watching this situation with some interest since I first put these pieces together about a decade ago (I’m sure I wasn’t the first to do so). So I was interested this week to read that Google, Apple and 13 other companies no longer require employees to have a college degree. Do you think other big employers will follow their lead? Will small employers? How long would it take for a change in job description writing and hiring practices to percolate throughout a majority of employers – to reach a “tipping point” as it were?

And what can higher education be doing ahead of that event to prepare itself?

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