The idea of spending four years after high school getting a college degree hasn’t been around forever but it has been with us a pretty long time. Maybe too long. Some people, like famed technology researcher Sebastian Thrun, think the traditional model of college education is on the way out, doomed to become as anachronistic as the square wheel.
Thrun has this to say on the future of college degrees. “It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away. The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn’t valid anymore.”
Interesting. If this turn out to be the case, then the Era of College Education didn’t last very long, did it? People who have been paying attention over the past few years probably see the reality in Thrun’s prediction. We at Young Wealth certainly do. We seem to be entering a third era of American post-secondary education, and this one might blow all our minds. Your best bet for future success is to understand the dynamics behind WHAT is happening and also WHY it is happening.
Let’s rewind the clock.
Pre-Industrial and Industrial
Though Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have been with us even before the Revolutionary War, the average young person would never see the inside of those hallowed halls of education. Actually, nothing much has changed since then in that respect, but that’s beside the point. What’s important to note is that post secondary education in the United States was reserved primarily for the political and financially elite. Working towards a college degree was not really an option for most people of the appropriate age. As the country matured into an industrial powerhouse, young Americans went to work on the family farm, in factories, or learned a specific trade or skill by apprenticing with a master.
As the 20th century unfurled, and we slogged our way through a handful of wars, it became more accepted for the sons and daughters of middle-class families to want to get a college degree. The thinking then, and it was true for the most part, was that education was the path to career success. It would give you a leg up. Make you stand out. Back when a person could expect to work for a single company their entire career, this manner of thinking was dead on correct. The problem is that the nature of our working society has been rearranging itself for the past decade at least, or maybe even
closer to twenty years.
The definition of a “career” has been completely redefined. Some estimates say that more than a quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 42 will have somewhere between 11-14 jobs. This is a far cry from the old days! If this trend holds true, we’re becoming a nation of freelancers. First let’s consider why this happening. A full analysis of the reasons behind the shift are beyond the scope of this single article but here are a few.
1. Cost: Between the expense of offering health insurance to full-timers and the ever-increasing pay of experienced workers, more and more businesses have decided that hiring freelancers on a per-project basis makes better financial sense.
2. Dead Wood: Let’s face facts. A certain percentage of people retained by a company become less productive as they gain seniority. In extraordinarily unsettled economic times, the continued existence of a business might depend upon the ability to be keep as few full-time workers on staff as possible. A lean, flexible company has a better chance of long-term survival.
3. Technology Evolution: The reality is that technology changes so fast it can make a skill set obsolete within a few years. A company can either choose to send an employee to school to get the training (not likely) or hire someone who already has the skills on an as-needed basis (becoming more common).
Which leads us back to the idea that the quickening pace of today’s technology development might be one of the things creating less of a demand for college degrees going forward. This is not to say that education will stand aside completely. On the contrary, the ability to acquire knowledge in specific skills and technologies will be more important than ever. People are likely, however, to begin to question the need for an entire degree where half the classes are devoted to nothing more than creating a more “well-rounded” individual.
While we’re all for “rounding,” try convincing a business owner trying to make a buck of the importance. Good luck!
The Young Wealth Team
Flickr / Velo abzug