Welcome Freshman—Your Degree Is Obsolete
Confronting the fact that the old ways of educating undergraduates are looking increasingly irrelevant, schools are adopting time-saving and flexible innovations.
Across from Washington, D.C.,’s Georgetown University is a red clapboard house where this 226-year-old Jesuit university is trying to reinvent itself.
Georgetown has long enjoyed a top twenty-five spot in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and a stellar reputation among prospective students, who often choose between it and the top Ivy League universities. But Georgetown’s endowment of around $1.4 billion pales in comparison to that of the University of Pennsylvania ($10 billion), Princeton ($9 billion), or Stanford ($22 billion). Without that kind of financial cushion, Georgetown’s biggest boosters worry it may not continue to attract top students in the future, especially with an annual price tag of more than $60,000.
The “red house,” as it is known around campus, opened in 2014 as an incubator to rethink the university’s future. The cramped house is filled with posters dotted with sticky notes and elaborate drawings of models showing how students move through their undergraduate years. The chief architect of what happens in the house is Randy Bass, the vice provost of education and a popular figure on campus who still teaches undergraduates. Bass, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and a dry sense of humor, has focused much of his work in the last year on finding an avenue to increase the value of a Georgetown degree.
Bass told me higher education suffers from a measurement problem. “We only charge for a portion of what students see as the value of moving to a degree,” he said. Tuition is tied to the credit hour, and 120 earns a bachelor’s degree. But the credit hour doesn’t actually measure how much students learn. It’s simply an arbitrary measure of time spent in a seat, and it certainly doesn’t tell employers much about the college graduates they’re hiring except that they had the discipline to make it through four years of courses.
What’s more, a degree based on time spent in a seat is inefficient because it forces all students to follow a single route to graduation (which, as we’ve seen, is not how the workplace operates). A new degree taking shape at Georgetown aims to strike out those inefficiencies and, at the same time, marry two competing interests: job skills and education. It would combine a liberal arts bachelor’s degree with a vocational master’s degree, all within the time frame of four years. Several universities already offer combined degrees, of course, but they typically take five years, and the master’s experience is usually bolted on at the very end, almost as an afterthought.
Instead, Georgetown is rethinking the entire track to the degree. Professors have identified the competencies students need to learn for the merged undergraduate and graduate degrees. At most colleges, such competencies are tied to a course. Sit in a fifteen-week class and you’ve achieved the goal. By identifying the competencies associated with a degree, Georgetown can move away from the course as the sole measure of learning. Students could earn a competency in a fraction of a course or, more important, outside the walls of the university in internships or projects.
“That stuff that has been on the margins of the experience now are the bread and butter of this new degree,” Bass said. “They are at the center of what we do.”
The combined degree probably won’t be less expensive than the four-year degree is now, but Bass believes it will be packed with more value. About one-third of Georgetown seniors already go part-time in their last semester because they have completed their degree requirements. In the future, perhaps they can get a master’s degree during the downtime until graduation. Traditionalists keep asking Bass where in his model the bachelor’s degree ends and the master’s begins. But he envisions it as one integrated experience, where the undergraduate studies shrink over four years as the work associated with the master’s grows. “Just maybe,” Bass said, “we are creating a new kind of degree.”
Such a degree is designed for the kind of student that Georgetown typically attracts—top of their class, academically focused, the type that usually sprints into a job after college. But college students are no longer the homogeneous group they were three or four decades ago. Yet they are still largely served by a one-size-fits-all delivery method—forty courses equals a bachelor’s degree. Now, when technology allows much of the content of those classes to be delivered outside specified time periods each week and even anywhere in the world, the idea of “the course” seems antiquated and increasingly irrelevant to growing segments of today’s students.
A few years ago, within one week on two different airplane flights, I was seated next to a recent college dropout. One left Ohio University after one semester, and the other dropped out of a performing arts college in Los Angeles after two years. Both had accumulated debt. Coincidentally, they both were looking to the cruise ship industry for work. They both told me the same thing about their short college experience: they weren’t stimulated by introductory courses that lacked any connection to the real world. Indeed, the best classes in college often come in the last year, the “capstone courses,” as they are called, where students have intimate learning experiences usually centered on hands-on projects. Students shouldn’t have to wait four years for such engaging learning experiences.
An experiment at Arizona State University, a massive public institution with seventy-six thousand students, might eliminate the idea of a course altogether. Backed by a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the university is testing out a degree in which students learn the subject matter for their majors through a series of projects instead of a specified schedule of classes. Engineering students might build a robot, for example, and they could learn the key principles of mechanics and electronics from faculty members as needed during the project. If students are struggling with a concept, professors could pull together an impromptu class or students could learn on their own using other resources, such as free online courses offered by other universities.
Unlike Georgetown, which is trying to prove its value among a select group of elite colleges, Arizona State’s goal is to build new degree pathways that allow it to enroll a greater number of low-income students, a group that he nation’s top colleges have mostly ignored.
The design of the project-based degree at Arizona State focuses on how students actually learn, said Betty Capaldi Phillips, the university’s former provost. In a traditional course-based degree program, students might study a concept in the fourth week of a semester, but not use it until two semesters later, by which time they probably have forgotten what they learned. Or students have no idea how a theory is applied in the outside world as they are learning about it, so they quickly lose interest. By learning a new concept while working on a project, Phillips said, “you use it and you know why you use it.”
Excerpted from There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow by Jeffrey J. Selingo, Copyright 2016 by Jeffrey J. Selingo and published by William Morrow.
Jeffrey J. Selingo has reported on higher education for two decades as an award-winning journalist and author of three books. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, where he writes weekly about college and universities, their future, and how students can succeed in a fast-changing economy. Jeff is the former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he worked for 18 years in a variety of reporting and editing roles. At the Chronicle, he covered many of the pressing issues facing higher education, including admissions, student debt, and university finances. In 2013, he published College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, a New York Times best selling education book, and in 2014 he authored a follow-up book, MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate, and he is a LinkedIn Influencer, where you can follow his blog posts on higher education. Jeff has appeared on ABC, CNN, PBS, CNBC, and NPR. Jeff received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ithaca College and a master’s degree in government from the Johns Hopkins University. He has also received honorary degrees from Philadelphia University in Pennsylvania and Morningside College in Iowa. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.