Future of Education: Advanced Degrees or Micro-Certificates?

Like many industries, the business of education is facing a revolution in the face of technological and society changes. Many are wondering if traditional academic degrees, such as four-year colleges and graduate schools, are still the same high-value career proposition they used to be, particularly with the quickening of market changes, skyrocketing tuition costs, and bleak employment outcomes for graduates. Even more concerning for many traditional academic institutions is the rise in alternative forms of education in Micro-Certificates.

Micro-certificates, as opposed to a traditional college diploma, is often a series of self-paced classes that run for a matter of weeks and focus on a handful of particular skills rather than a holistic education. The reasoning is that for many modern workers, advancement can be substantially faster, cheaper, and more flexible if they quickly learn hard skills like programming or data science rather than spending years trudging through often outdated or irrelevant coursework. Additionally, it can be perfect for those who struggle to overcome the many hurdles to acquiring higher education. The popularity of data “boot camps” and abbreviated courses allow those looking to fill skill shortages to quickly transition careers while still being able to demonstrate training & competence.

Businesses are often fans of these programs as well. Not only are they faster and more focused than traditional education, but they are also substantially cheaper. This matters for businesses wanting to invest in training their employees, because they can transition away from expensive tuition-reimbursement plans to incentivize the boot camps, certifications, and continuing education programs. Faster pacing also allows businesses and employees to be more responsive and adaptive to technological and skills changes in the market. For example, would a business rather wait four years for an employee to get a bachelors in machine learning, or spend 6 weeks getting them up to speed?

Despite the competition, it would be foolish to expect higher education programs to go anywhere. The more holistic education offered by most higher education programs has an ephemeral value in its own right, and there is considerable professional and personal value into studying a subject for years and to “learn how to learn”. Additionally, there is considerable value in the networking and innovation opportunities that come from spending your time at college. It doesn’t have to be a purely “dollar and cents” decision either: many people study because they value the subject matter, and many pursue graduate degrees as a personal development pursuit rather than a purely business decision.

Colleges and Micro-certificates also don’t have to be an either/or decision. In fact, many colleges are capitalizing on the trends by hosting the boot camps and micro-courses themselves, and they are finding innovative ways to merge the two together with accelerated and practitioner-focused programs.

Ultimately, it is less of a question of if micro-certificates will replace traditional academic and more of a question of how will the two co-exist moving forward.

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