Future-proofing higher education starts with reinventing the college degree

In the future, your degree won’t come from one university, or even be on one subject.
In the future, your degree won’t come from one university, or even be on one subject.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of College.

The speed at which technology is changing has created a reality where we have to rethink our education system. The impact that rapidly changing technology is having on the workforce and economy cannot be ignored, and we must come to terms with the fact that we need to be continually learning and refreshing our skills in order to stay relevant.

The jobs of the future will require a hybrid set of skills from a variety of subject areas. But our current education model has us spending at least three years studying the same singular discipline. As the en vogue skills will change several times as our careers progress, higher education degrees are also adapting, focusing on flexible and customizable credential offerings.

In this future, imagine that instead of graduating with a single degree from one university, you will design your own personalized degree from many online or residential programs. Smaller, modular chunks of education will reign, and our learning experience will become incredibly flexible and customizable.

Think of it like building a Lego castle block by block instead of purchasing a pre-made plastic one: You select the different bricks you need to build the strongest foundation for your career.

Modular education will allow students to personalize their work prospects. Instead of spending four years pursuing the same degree as thousands of others, they will be able to build a degree that plays to their strengths and differentiates themselves from the competition. They will be able to combine humanities skills with tech skills, communication skills with coding skills, and analytical skills with design skills. This approach will essentially enable students to synthesize their own education with the customized skillset required for the careers of the future.

This flexibility in education reflects the changing nature of the future of work. The most exponential fields often lie at the intersection of two seemingly unrelated professions. For example, data science is one of the fastest-growing fields, but a data scientist often also needs a strong working background in whichever industry they are embedded in, such as renewable energy, politics, or financial services. This requires a unique hybrid skillset that is challenging to teach in a traditional, stove-piped education setting.

In order to excel in (or even apply for) these jobs, a future employee would currently have to secure two different degrees. But in the future, if a student knew the direction they wanted to take, they could take courses from two different tracks: for example, by building a master’s degree that fuses data science from one department or university, and biotech from another.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will serve as one of the new vehicles on which these modular degrees can be built. MOOCs are courses that have been designed to be taught online, with open admissions and at scale, and are capable of reaching thousands or hundreds of thousands of students. Based on the latest in cognitive science learning, research shows that learning online often results in similar or better outcomes than the traditional classroom setting because of its flexibility, personalized pacing, and instant feedback.

You won’t even need to get your whole degree from one school. We envision a global credit-exchange network that will enable students to create their own customizable degrees, comprised of several credentials from a variety of higher education institutions. This is already starting to happen as MOOC providers and their institutional partners offer more programs and credentials that are valuable as standalone certificates, and that are credit-eligible at participating colleges. Universities will continue to share content decoupled from degrees, and in the future, students will stack modular credentials from multiple universities into larger credentials and degrees.

This approach to further education can also be applied to single-course skills. Once you are in the workforce, learning and knowledge-sharing will be a continually rolling experience. Our ability to continually top-up our skills will become even more imperative in the future, where rapidly changing technology will force the workforce to constantly iterate. Workers will therefore need continually learn and refresh their abilities in order to stay relevant.

This will be good for higher education institutions. A college or online platform will have the option to specialize in certain subjects and offer the components of education their instructors truly excel in. When each university can focus on what it does best, both the educators and the educated will benefit. Additionally, the experiences for those who pursue on-campus education will also improve, as they will be able to augment their in-person education with specialized modular online content from other institutions.

The potential reach afforded by online education means that universities can also reach a global audience that isn’t feasible in person. This benefits the learners, too, as they can seek out the best education from top global institutions internationally, preparing them for an increasingly connected economic and social world.

Education isn’t static. In this future, traditional degrees themselves may become antiquated, and employers will increasingly look for what multifarious skills learners know versus what degree they possess. Modular credentials will be ideal for working professionals who want to update their skillset to suit the shifting job market, better preparing students and adults alike for an excitingly unpredictable future.

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of College.