The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

The Risk of Being Too Good at Something: Bananas and the Degree

A person (Jim Fong) smiles at the camera

By Jim Fong

A friend once told me that the everyday banana in the U.S. has such strong qualities, such as taste, appearance, nutritional value, cost, manageable perishability, growth predictability, disease resistance and relative ease of growing, that few other genetic variations are sold worldwide.  This banana strain, the Cavendish, is so popular that few other variations are grown in the U.S. or imported. However, with such dominance comes great risk as a Panamanian strain of a fungus nearly wiped out the beloved Cavendish.[1]  This principle of product superiority is called a “monoculture,” and some have argued that college degrees in the U.S. operate in a monoculture.

Students and consumers are mired in this monoculture and they apparently want greater flexibility and value than what a degree offers.  We’re seeing that with declining enrollment numbers (not necessarily a result of the demographic cliff) and high school graduate participation rates.  In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were more high school graduates in 2023 (3.6 million) than there were in 2013 (3.4 million),[2] yet higher education is suffering.  One can blame the unfavorable statistics of the demographic cliff coming into play, but other variables in the equation are cost and flexibility, which in turn equates to value.  During that same time, undergraduate college enrollment fell from 17.7 million students in 2013 to 15.2 million in the Fall of 2023.[3]

One more eye-popping statistic … In 2011, the high school graduation rate was 79%.[4] In 2020, that number was 87%.[5] While college enrollment trends should be based on four-year calculations, the number of graduates and high school participation has not followed.  High school participation to college in 2013 was 66%. In 2023, that number was 62%.[6] Yes, there are pandemic effects, but we can’t hide behind the pandemic numbers forever.  I would argue that higher education has a problem and some of our UPCEA and partner research suggests that price and value play into the numbers, but also flexibility of the offering and whether or not the content is future-facing.  Flexibility could mean stackability, delivering education online or in a hybrid format, or even acknowledging credit for noncredit activities.

Employers value the expertise of the degree, but may need more real-time education.  A recent UPCEA and Collegis study showed that employers want to partner with colleges and universities.[7] The study also cites other sources that show, beyond price and cost issues, how higher education can improve its offerings and services to become more valuable to employers in the future.  Despite advances in artificial intelligence, employers see being able to survive or thrive in a new economy as dependent on the skill of their workforce.  In fact, the study showed that employers often seek many sources to train their employers, including colleges and universities, massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera or EdX, private sources such as LinkedIn Learning and Khan Academy, and professional associations.  Higher education is going to need to include employers in the planning process if it desires a mutually beneficial relationship.

Colleges and universities have a successful legacy monoculture to build degrees. The benefits of the higher education monoculture include mature processes, staff maturity, and having the ability to control costs. It is apparent that students and employers want programs and services that are more flexible, relevant to the future and with greater value.  The UPCEA Collegis report shows that employers are very supportive and embrace the concepts of stackability and microcredentials.[8] N A 2023 study by UPCEA and the company StraighterLine shows that having educational components such as certificates and digital badges are likely to have an impact on students with some college credit yet no degree and getting them to restart their education.[9]  But what about college leadership and the institution of higher education?  There is clear evidence of many institutions embracing the category of microcredentials and stackability (as can be seen in attendance at UPCEA and AACRAO’s joint conference in 2023), but there is also significant resistance on the issue as well, mostly coming from the academic side of the house conditioned to acknowledge only a degree or credit education as a standard for occupational readiness.

Other major stakeholders are even starting to make waves regarding the role of microcredentials.  Both the World Economic Forum and UNESCO have published papers or articles alluding to the changing role of post-secondary education and the role of microcredentials in the process.  Global economies are also appearing to adopt microcredentials at a faster pace (Canada, New Zealand, U.K., etc.). Even the American Council of Education (ACE) came out with a statement regarding the reclassification system for Carnegie Classification, which I see as a potential signal that the definition of higher education will change in the future.

Ultimately, the walls are going to close in on higher education if it doesn’t adopt new forms of education.  The numbers show it and are further compounded by the demographic cliff, which is now at our doorsteps.  In fact, recent National Student Clearinghouse data shows that first-time students declined 3.6% during Fall 2023 compared to the previous year, while overall post-secondary enrollment increased by 1.1%, much of that fueled by certificate and associate degree growth.[10] College and university leaders can remain optimistic as they report to be Inside Higher Ed’s President’s Survey[11] but will need to adapt to the market and demographic pressures they are certain to face.  The legendary educator and consultant Peter Drucker is credited with saying “Innovate or Die” and for many institutions of higher education, this could be very true.  However, no institution needs to die if it adapts to the needs of the marketplace, makes the internal changes necessary, and builds relevant programs and services to the market.  We will need to:

  • Unbundle the undergraduate degree to be more modular and stackable. This will give students and employers milestones and interim achievements should their lives be disrupted by another pandemic or an economic setback.  By chopping a high priced product into smaller, more palatable, and preferred pieces, modular or stackable education could also be a more effective pricing strategy that helps institutions avoid a downward spiraling price discounting war with competing institutions.

  • Acknowledge that learning is learning and not be constrained by how it converts to a credit. If an individual learns a skill and earns digital badges along the way and these skills or competencies are part of a credit curriculum, an act of God should not be the only path to acknowledge it and make it transferrable.  Ultimately, artificial intelligence could be the great equalizer here, as humans do not have scalable systems or mindsets to reward learning toward a degree- awarding system.  Artificial intelligence systems could ultimately decide for an employer as to whether a breadth of a person’s education and experience adequately prepares them for a specific job.  Higher education needs noncredit-to-credit transfer or prior learning assessment at scale and they need it sooner rather than later.
  • Build engagement and support systems around the potential student and not on rigid institutional policy and preferences. Colleges and universities need to learn how to better communicate and engage with students.  Many are currently failing first-contact engagements based on recent website analyses and secret shopping audits conducted by UPCEA with its partners.

Everyone seems to want change, except for the academics who hold close their sacred cow of the credit degree. While the vegetarians in the room will cringe, they can have their credit degree cow and eat it too. Noncredit education can have greater value in a credit curriculum.  We must, however, be willing to acknowledge it and build systems to support it.  Noncredit education, where digital badges are awarded, and stackable credit certificates can be high-value pathways toward a long-term goal of credit education.  Credit programs and degrees can continue into the distant future, but noncredit and digital badges can offset immediate demographic and traditional demand losses with new revenues and the potential for credentials to count towards a degree.













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