Editor's Note: This article was last updated in November 2022.
The growing demand for work-relevant, nondegree, skill-based education is well documented. But what does this mean for the traditional four-year degree (or its cousins at the associates and graduate levels)?
While many have framed this as an either-or scenario, where the rise of skill-based learning leads inexorably to the decline of degrees, there is reason to believe that skills can not only co-exist with degrees, but actually enhance their relevance and value for today’s learners. As Western Governors University president Scott Pulsipher said at a meeting of the Workforce Policy Advisory Board in July of 2020, “it’s often perceived as skills versus degrees. But in reality, in a skills-denominated future, it is that tide that lifts all boats. Because even those who possess degrees, they can better articulate the skills and competencies that they now have for the future of work.”
And > Or
Rather than viewing college degrees and work-relevant skills as mutually exclusive, institutions can leverage the unique advantages of skills data to adapt degree programs for today’s skill-based economy. Here are two specific ways to begin this transformation:
1) Know and show the work-relevant skills associated with your degrees
The first major step institutions can take to counteract the perception of “skills vs. degrees” is to translate their degree programs into the language of work-relevant skills. The more you can describe degrees (and their constituent courses and learning outcomes) in terms of their skill content, the more effectively you can engage with and serve today’s increasingly skill-focused employers, policy makers, and learners.
As we’ve explained before, this “skillification” of curriculum enables your institution to show students that they don’t have to choose between a college degree and work-relevant training that translates to career value. They can have both.
Start by identifying the work-relevant skills that you already teach, and where those skills are distributed across your program portfolio. This can be done by parsing and tagging curricular content (course descriptions, syllabi, learning outcomes, etc.) with work-relevant skill terms used by employers in job postings and working professionals in their online profiles.
With this insight, you can immediately begin improving course descriptions and program pages on your institution’s site. These improvements allow you to highlight a degree’s value and relevance, using language that employers and job-seekers recognize, and do so in the places where prospective learners are most likely to browse while weighing their options.
This skill-tagging also lays the groundwork for a direct comparison between the skills you teach and the skills employers are seeking. We previously looked in depth at how this “sought skills” vs. “taught skills” analysis can inform microcredential development. But many of the same principles can be applied to program review at a broader scale to ensure that degree programs teach the in-demand skills graduates need to succeed. Just as important, institutions can demonstrate this alignment to current and prospective students, giving them clarity and confidence about the relevance and value of their education.
Below: Kacey Thorne (Senior Director, Skills Architecture) explains how Western Governors University is mapping degrees to work-relevant skills. Watch on YouTube.
2) Unbundle degrees into skill-based, stackable microcredentials
Another way to reimagine the degree for the future of education (and work) is to think of it as the culmination of smaller units of learning rather than as a four-year, all-or-nothing proposition. A skillified curriculum facilitates this by providing a consistent, skill-based grid through which to evaluate academic offerings and assess how various units within your program portfolio relate to each other, and to employer demand.
Viewed through this lens, the skillified degree plan offers a kind of skill-based blueprint which can be used to architect how shorter, focused credentials might stack into a full degree.
This more modular, skill-based approach to degrees can have a variety of benefits, from boosting accessibility to facilitating lifelong learning:
Unbundling degrees into more bite sized educational units offers learners a shorter time horizon and faster ROI.
This, in turn, reduces the risk of enrolling and having to drop out with nothing to show for it. In this way, offering recognizable, skill-specific credentials along the way to a degree may expand accessibility and increase enrollment in the long run.
Along with providing additional off-ramps, stackable, skill-based credentials can provide additional on-ramps for learners to return for additional education, as needed.
Institutions can further facilitate this lifelong learning by helping individuals inventory their existing skills and map their skill gaps to the institution’s curriculum, thereby guiding learners to their next best step.
While there are other important considerations involved in designing stackable credentials, the point here is simply that a skillified curriculum can help colleges and universities reimagine and repurpose existing degree programs to better serve the needs of today’s skill-focused learners.
Just as appetizers don’t compete with entrees on a dinner menu, there’s no reason to think microcredentials have to compete with (rather than complement) degrees in an institution’s program portfolio. For some learners, the short-term credential may be all they need. For others it might be just the start of their academic journey. One is not inherently better than the other. It’s a question of fit; one that only the student can ultimately answer, based on their needs and goals.
Much like STEM and the Liberal Arts (a subject we’ve written about at length in partnership with the Strada Education Network), skills and degrees are two compatible concepts, often pitted against each other, that are actually better together. Getting this relationship right matters not just for institutions, but for learners as well. Colleges and universities that can offer students work-relevant degrees delivered via flexible, stackable pathways have the potential to not only help working (or out-of-work) adults in the short-term, but to continue offering on-ramps to higher learning as individuals advance through their lives and careers.
What to read next
This article is part of a series exploring how higher education can adapt and thrive in an increasingly skill-based economy. Check out additional articles below, or download the complete series (plus additional content) in ebook form.
If you’d like to discuss transforming your own institution with skills data, let us know. We’d love to learn about the work you’re doing and explore how our data can help.