Higher Education Hackers

Most people would agree that the best education comes from a lifetime, not a degree. A constant ache for knowledge makes us human and drives us to question and learn. In the US, there is a growing debate over the value of going back to school for an advanced degree. Millennials are increasingly choosing unconventional work experience and DIY education opportunities. Corporations are increasingly recruiting these millennials. This topic gets press weekly (see The New York TimesHarvard Business Review, TED and Fast Company) along with a loud, rather sloppy, debate over the worthiness of an MBA. Often law, masters and business school graduates struggle to find jobs. Lately graduate students have dropped out after deciding their degrees aren’t a good investment of time, money or career prospects. On the other hand, self-educating, trans-disciplinary, unconventional types seem to find jobs more easily.

So what’s going on? Is higher education dying? Will the future workforce self-determine its learning, a la carte style? Or is this just a fad because the economy is bad, so schools are fuller and jobs are fewer?

Education is adapting to new economic and social demands. The post-2008 economy spins on a different axis and the post-2000 world is a digital one.

Why is this happening?

In the past half century business has become less vertical and more horizontal. Fifty years ago, universities prepared students for careers where professions were fixed, roles and responsibilities were predictable, and there was a clear path toward upper-level management. Masters degrees evolved to funnel students into silo careers and most people stayed with the same company for decades. Today, on the other hand, people spend less than five years on average with any given employer.

Speed and complexity

I recently read about an IBM study called “Capitalizing on Complexity” that interviewed 1,500 CEOs worldwide about their business priorities. The CEOs noted that complexity in an increasingly interconnected world is their biggest challenge, and they named creativity as the essential skill for solving this challenge.

The ‘new economy’ demands a different kind of worker. Companies need people who traverse disciplines, adapt easily, establish unlikely networks, and experiment rather than play it safe. They learn whatever it takes and collaborate with whomever it takes to get the job done.

Universities must reset themselves from the inside out to produce this kind of graduate. It requires organizational and system change of the greatest magnitude, with significant investments of time, thought, and money. Adaptation is happening: Universities are innovating with interdisciplinary programs and newer subjects like design thinking, behavioral economics, human-computer interaction, entrepreneurship and sustainability.

Fifty years ago, universities prepared students for careers where professions were fixed, roles and responsibilities were predictable, and there was a clear path toward upper-level management.

Thanks to the lackluster job market, graduate programs have been over-capacity with students. This may help young professionals who do not have advanced degrees to differentiate themselves. These people may instead found tech startups, manage disaster relief in Haiti and write about black market innovation in slums. Whether you have an advanced degree or a DIY trajectory, most people agree that something needs to change. There is a major gap between academic theory and real-life application. By the time graduates encounter a problem, they may have forgotten the theory anyway. DIY-ers can point to real-life examples of creativity, resourcefulness, flexibility and teamwork.

Personal branding makes DIYing easier. The internet creates access to information. Top universities now offer free “open courses” through hosts like Coursera. It is easier to acquire a new skill, launch a new side project, or find an unconventional job opportunity. And we can brand ourselves using social networks. Nowadays personal brands are an alternative rubberstamp to advanced degrees.

As Fast Company recently put it, Linearity is out. A career is now a checkerboard. Or even a maze…. A career is a portfolio of projects that teach you new skills, gain you new expertise, develop new capabilities, grow your colleague set, and constantly reinvent you as a brand. For the job seeker, then, telling an appealing story about your career’s twists and turns is now an essential aspect of self-marketing. But it’s also true that recruiters and managers at large companies are seeking out employees who like to move around. These are the very people who can lead companies toward new markets and ideas.”

Despite all this, advanced degrees retain their value. Sometimes it’s easier to learn hard skills like financial analysis and computer programming in a graduate program. And companies tend to pay higher salaries for masters degrees than they do to DIY-ers (on the other hand DIY-ers have less debt).

From a macrocosmic perspective we can see that the world is reinventing itself rapidly and until markets catch up with themselves and universities catch up with markets, young professionals (all professionals) will hack their education together to compensate. Young professionals need to weigh the opportunity costs of time, financial investment and skills gained. For many professions, advanced degrees have become a personal choice as opposed to a necessary career move. Advanced degrees still have many advantages. For better or worse they are a more identifiable validation. Universities offer more opportunities for teamwork, and a complete curriculum is usually more instructive than ad hoc courses. Nothing can replace expert professors and face time. So the higher education of the future will be more flexible, inter-disciplinary and self-determined. Students will mix theory and class-time with experiential opportunities. People will hack the system from within, as opposed to from without.

the author

Melissa Richer

Melissa Richer is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture. She is based in San Francisco, United States.