“There is no correlation between success at university and success in careers.”

A university degree is no longer a prerequisite for getting “a foot in the door,” says Ernst & Young.  Instead, the firm believes it will be able to identify the most talented prospects regardless of their academic, ethnic, or economic backgrounds through online assessments.  These assessments will judge applicants by their competencies, capabilities, and potential for success in the workplace.

Competency-based education is “an institutional process that moves education from focusing on what academics believe graduates need to know (teacher-focused) to what students need to know and be able to do in varying and complex situations (student and/or workplace focused).” Students are taught the skills they will need in life and in future vocational pursuits.  It seems like common sense and schools believe they teach this way — but they don’t.

Education Focuses on How The World Used to Be

A degree used to mean you went through a rigorous curriculum, built your knowledge, passed your exams, and matured as a person.  It was a proxy for competence in a life-long career that didn’t drastically evolve.  An employer didn’t need to administer a test to validate competence — a diploma served that purpose.

Today, a degree represents the fact you went through the curriculum and achieved technical competence, but a university education and good grades, alone, don’t indicate whether you’ll be a good employee and get the job done. There is an increasing disparity between traditional education and the requirements of jobs traditional education prepares young people for.  Employers and regulators are taking note.  Universities spend little time addressing non-academic needs of the workplace including: effective communication skills; high-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical ability; professional skepticism and judgment; and professional and ethical responsibilities.  Employers aren’t dismissing the value of a degree; they are qualifying it while educators are failing to adapt.

The educational system is spearheaded by people who are experts in yesterday.  They are people who grew up in a different generation, in a different world, with different circumstances, and push to educate the next generation based upon what worked in the past.  They are the people who explained how imperative it was to learn cursive and long division, despite the already wide-spread use of computers, keyboards, and calculators.  They are the people who taught advanced spelling in a world of spell-check instead of personal finance in a world of financial illiteracy.

Unfortunately, more than ever, the measurement of educational effectiveness is based on standardized test scores.  Teachers teach to the tests and focus on status-quo basic concepts, instead of transferring a depth of knowledge applicable to real-life and vocational success.  Just because performance through standardized testing is immediate and easily assessed, doesn’t mean it should be the default measurement for human achievement.  This approach drives the wrong priorities and focuses on the wrong skills.

Education is Failing to Keep Up With the Rapid Pace of Change

The solution may seem simple: teach more relevant skills and competencies.  Yet, this is incorrect and short-sighted.  Schools and universities can modernize curricula, but they will soon become outdated.  By the time young people graduate and enter the workforce, practices will have changed.  When young, soon-to-be teachers graduate, teaching methods and standards will have evolved.  Teachers will be presenting outdated concepts to a generation that’s already galloping into the future.  The workforce is increasingly unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change.  Overcoming the education gap requires more than refinement; it requires a societal shift in mindset.

In 2014, Stanford students embarked upon a provocative project in which they crafted the future of education as they wanted it to be.  They imagined the new university education.  Instead of enrolling for four years at age 18, they could willingly enroll from one-to-six years at any time in their lives.  Their transcripts would be full of the skills, competencies, and ideas put to work in the world, instead of all the courses they’d taken in their early 20s.  They envisioned declaring a “mission” instead of a “major”.

I can hear it now:  “Such Millennials!” exclaim the experts in yesterday.  This cavalier approach to education challenges their passion for conformity and standardized testing.  Thankfully, they’ll be retiring soon, but not before the damage is done to their children.

The days of attaining a university degree, getting a job, and relying on that early-adulthood education to provide employment and financial security through retirement will diminish.  Indeed, many professionals will still find success in this tradition, but it will apply to certain professions rather than the general population.  More than in the past, people will need to be able to learn new skills as the economy evolves and their jobs become commoditized, automated, and outsourced.  They’ll have many jobs and careers throughout their lifetimes, rather than the one their education primed them for.

Developments in nutrition and healthcare will continue to extend life expectancy so long that today’s form of retirement — relevant for just a single century — will go down as a quaint idea of the past.  Retirement will occur several times throughout life and in smaller increments.   People will recharge, retrain, and launch onto new career paths throughout a much longer work-life.  The rapid pace of change will require people to have more intellectual agility to pivot.

Does a University Degree Matter Anymore?  

Yes, but to a certain extent.  Although companies, like E&Y, still hold a university education in high regard, degrees represent something completely different than they once did.  The education the degree represents will only be a basic foundation from which to start work and spark life-long learning.  A university degree will no longer be a guaranteed ticket to a destination called Success.