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Is College Worth The Cost? It Depends on What You Learn

A third of college graduates feel their degree wasn’t worth the cost. 

That’s the stunning result of a report released last month by the Strada Education Network, after conducting a survey of over 3,200 college alumni who received degrees over the last 20 years. 

What’s the difference between graduates who are satisfied with their education and those who regret it? Some are demographic: on the whole, Strada found, Black men are significantly less likely to be satisfied, as are graduates who are working full time but earning less than $50,000 a year.  

But the most significant factor in whether alumni feel their college degree was worth it is: if they learned valuable skills.

The Right Skills For A Better Life

“Developing a key set of skills, including both general and specialized elements, is strongly associated with economic and noneconomic benefits,” the report states. Graduates with those skills reported both higher incomes and greater satisfaction with the non-economic outcomes in their lives.

What are those key skills? To some extent that depended on what fields people were entering:  “Newer industry-specific skills are constantly changing and vary significantly by industry and geography, so regular engagement with employers is helpful to ensure alignment,” the report says. Graduates need to have useful skills that are valued by the industries they want to enter. 

But more generally, “the skills most positively associated with higher earnings were quantitative skills and critical thinking or problem-solving. The skills most positively associated with life impact were leadership, critical thinking, the ability to learn new things, and creativity.”

There’s more than one way to get those key skills, and it doesn’t appear to matter which way someone gets them. It only matters that they get them.

Reinventing College

The Strada report recommends that colleges improve their degree programs by setting skill development as a key goal: “To help students get the most from their education, educators can consider a focus on skills as key learning outcomes,” the authors write. “Rather than exclusive focus on time in class or credit hours, educators should ensure that students are developing the capabilities they will need to succeed after graduation.”

There’s actually already an educational movement to do just that: it’s called “Competency-Based Education” (CBE), and it does exactly what the report is talking about: it measures classroom success by what students actually know and skills they master, rather than how long they spend in class or how many classes they’ve taken.  

The Strada report is focused on how to make bachelors degrees more satisfying, but the data they’ve collected also makes another point – if it’s the skills that increasingly matter, then we can reimagine and reinvent college by focusing on the skills.

That’s Calbright College’s approach. We’re a free online community college open to every adult Californian with a high school diploma. We don’t offer degrees: we’re entirely focused on teaching skills that companies hiring for good jobs are looking for. We work with employers  to inform our curriculum so that it reflects the demands of the labor market, and design programs that are flexible so students can take them when they want, any time day or night. Our Competency-Based Education model means students can move as quickly as they are able through material they are familiar with, while taking the time they need to learn new skills. All of our programs can be completed in under a year, some in less than six months, but students can take as long as they need, so long as they are making progress.  Further, we offer personal support during every part of the student journey.  

When finished, students are prepared for their certification exams in subjects like IT support, Cybersecurity, and CRM Platform Administration – all areas that are actively hiring with great pay.

More Options For College Are Better Options 

We shouldn’t allow higher education to be stagnant – bachelor’s degrees can and should be improved to be more useful for more students, but they also shouldn’t be the only route to success. Employers are increasingly hiring for skills, not degrees, and studies show that public options for education are great at supporting upward mobilityeven if they don’t provide a full degree. A community college that offers free online training in cybersecurity is a great way to support both people and companies, even if—maybe especially if—it provides a chance to advance skills and learning without a full degree. 

The new Strada report joins a number of other recent studies that all show the same thing: making college more accessible, incorporating Competency-Based Education, and focusing on skills, helps more people at every level of higher education. In many places, these aren’t just recommendations, they’re becoming reality. 

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