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Is the finite diploma obsolete in our fast-changing world?

University of Michigan MSIS

The Next Idea

Recently, I read a story in the LA Times entitled, “'A sea of despair': White Americans without college degrees are dying younger.” It was about a Princeton study on mortality rates. Apparently, all ethnic groups are living longer with the exception of white Americans. The researchers suggest that decades of underemployment have had a damaging effect on the group’s financial and personal decisions, making them an easy target for profiteers and ideologues. The message: You need a college education if you don’t want to die young.

A few weeks earlier, in the Economist, I read this – “Lifelong learning: How to survive in the age of automation.” The article is filled with stats on how a college education no longer a means a good job. It suggests that massive open online courses – those free online lectures – may replace universities in the near future, and even intimates that technology itself is taking the best jobs. The message here: a college education is of limited value given the rapid pace of technology.

A sure sign there’s a major pivot in a company or a market or a culture is the presence of a distinct incongruity like this one. So, which is it? Do we skip college and die young, or do we go to college and waste our time and money?  The correct answer is neither.

The original purpose of a college education was to cultivate a quality of mind, to impart in the student a wider worldview. However, a college degree has also been a hallmark of class distinction and privilege. Though big steps were taken after the Second World War to democratize educational opportunities, a diploma still represents the great divide between the haves and have-nots in our country. This is even more apparent now that the exorbitant cost has put a college degree out of reach for so many.

Universities still exist because knowledge directly translates into skills deemed worthy by society. But those skills constantly change with new discoveries, technologies and even language. Miss the shift and you’re left behind. The ability to make informed decisions, manage resources, communicate ideas and coordinate communities is essential in our global marketplace. But keeping up with the Joneses requires constantly keeping up with the latest findings.

Colleges and universities are finally getting the message. Professional schools are adding compulsory life-long education to their curriculum so skills are kept current. In fact, at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where I teach, graduates now have lifetime, tuition-free access to leadership development and executive education.

So why not take the next step? There are many on-demand providers that currently deliver college curriculum. Granted, some are degree mills of little value. But a real innovation would be if a college diploma was treated as a work in progress, an ongoing accumulation of certifications. Think of it like earning Boy Scout badges: a financial management badge, a data analysis badge, and a product development badge. Three badges and you’re a Tenderfoot. 30 and you’re an Eagle Scout. Or if you prefer, a Brownie or a Cadet. You get the picture. Ideally, our education would resemble our careers, where we build our credentials over a lifetime of work.

The needs of a disenfranchised social class and the availability of lifelong learning could be a powerful combination, with the potential to help re-establish our missing middle class.

It may not help us live longer, but it might just help us live better. 

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio's project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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Jeff DeGraff got his nickname, the Dean of Innovation, because of his influence on the field. DeGraff is Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.