- Higher education has become an increasingly important factor in acquiring work; it is arguably the case now that almost every job that can sustain a family financially requires a college degree for employment.
- There is a profound misalignment between what the labor market’s needs are and what university curriculums teach.
- Even though college enrollment is decreasing, higher education will play a role in the future of work.
Before the 1980s, a college degree wasn’t necessary for most Americans to find a good job. Industrial jobs were readily available straight out of high school, and these jobs enabled Americans to support their families.
Since then, however, higher education has become an increasingly important factor in acquiring work. It is arguably the case now that almost every job that can sustain a family financially requires a college degree for employment.
Will higher education continue to play this role in the future of work? Or will college become the new high school? And if that’s the case, why are college enrollment rates dropping?
College enrollment rates are dropping
Since 2012, college enrollment rates have been on a downward trend. Most recently, fall admissions for 2021 declined by 3.2 percent. College enrollment is on track for having the most significant two-year decline on record.
Young people are now opting instead to work rather than go to school. In part, this is attributable to the pandemic. However, it is likewise attributable to the higher education debt crisis, which these students avoid by not enrolling in college.
Many Gen Zers saw the example set by millennials and their predecessors. During the great recession, there was an increase in college enrollment. Yet, this did not translate into an increase in meaningful work outcomes. College generally doesn’t train you for a job or acquire work – but work is what is necessary to survive in America.
If colleges want to improve these enrollment rates, they need to meet the demand for job training. A path to in-demand jobs needs to be clearly articulated by universities in their curriculums to have a lasting positive impact on the future of work.
What forms of employment do universities need to prepare students for?
The world of work is changing rapidly. Traditionally, higher-order skills that jobs require of employees were cultivated in universities. In the 21st century, however, this is often not the case.
Since Gen Z workers have arrived on the job market, some employers have expressed worries that they’re not prepared for ‘the real world’ of work. Specifically, reports suggest that Gen Z workers are not ready for the jobs of the future.
There is some support for this view: Gen Z workers are more likely to hop from job to job, and they are the most likely to have interpersonal struggles at work due to a lack of soft social skills. The latter issue is heavily related to technology and its tendency to isolate people.
The jobs that are the least likely to become automated in our lifetimes require soft skills – hence the worry among companies and experts.
For universities to play a vital role in the future of work, they must facilitate these soft skills in students. Unfortunately, as it stands, schools do not teach these skills to students for the most part.
There are, of course, some schools that teach skills that are necessary for the future of work to their students. But for the most part, there is a profound misalignment between what the labor market’s needs are and what university curriculums teach.
However, the needs of the labor market cannot supersede the conditions of students, intellectually speaking. Instead, the two should somehow go hand-in-hand. Undermining intellectual interest for the sake of the labor market will help nothing. On the other hand, making them compatible may indeed kick enrollment back into gear.
“The World Economic Forum (WEF 2020) emphasizes this need for general skills that are not directly related to any particular discipline (and are less likely to be automated) when analyzing the jobs of tomorrow: ‘emerging professions […] reflect the continuing importance of human interaction in the new economy’.”
This may indeed entail bolstering humanities departments, which – at least indirectly – teach such skills. President Biden plans to bolster the humanities to help fuel the economy – though it’s unclear whether or not he will get something like that passed.
The role of online education and certificates
Alternatives to higher education, including certificates that lead directly to acquiring an occupation, have become quite popular over the past few decades. Simply by sitting at home and studying independently, you can become a certified personal trainer, a coder, or a web developer, among countless other occupations.
Will these certificates replace higher education? Not in all cases. Many jobs will always require a college degree. There is simply no getting around that. There will never be an online certificate that will replace medical school.
However, will many young workers circumvent college through these certificates? Absolutely. In fact, many are already doing this. But, considering that some of the jobs you can get with these certificates pay quite well and that certificates are cheaper than college, can you really blame them?
Certificates can present a young person with a clear end-in-sight (a job), whereas the latter often complicates things by inducing debt without a clear path to a job. These certificates are quite akin to vocational training.
The demand for college is decreasing, but not at a rapid rate. By contrast, the demand for jobs that certificates can help you acquire is high.
Therefore, the role of higher education in the future of work is not bleak. We need scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers, and professors, and these professions can only be obtained through higher education.
Higher education, instead, requires modifications to provide students with greater interpersonal and leadership skills. Even though college enrollment is decreasing, higher education will play a role in the future of work indefinitely.