America’s system of higher education is currently in the throes of two distinct, but intertwined crises: one generally understood, the other less so. The crisis everyone understands is affordability and unsustainable levels of student loan debt. The other crisis is employability. Nearly half of all college graduates are underemployed in their first job. And we know that underemployment is pernicious and lasting.
Students now overwhelmingly enroll with a good first job in mind. Other considerations are secondary. According to the recent report from Strada’s Institute for the Future of Work, two-thirds of underemployed graduates remain underemployed five years later, and half remain underemployed a decade later.
The result is what I call the Employment Imperative – the single biggest change in higher education over the past 20 years. Today’s students no longer buy that tired college line that “we prepare you for your fifth job, not your first job.” They know that if they don’t get a good first job, they’re probably not going to get a good second job. As a result, today’s students are both more discerning and more utilitarian about learning and its costs: they are laser-focused on getting a good first job in a growing sector of the economy.
These dynamics are accelerating the shift to new models of higher education that I outline in a new book called A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. In the traditional model, colleges and universities pick up where primary and secondary education leaves off and then follow what is often a meandering pathway through faculty-determined curriculum to a degree. Under the new paradigm offered by alternative providers, programs start with employers and first jobs and utilize “last-mile training” to provide the technical and digital skills that traditional colleges and universities aren’t providing.
Beyond tuition-pay bootcamps and income-share programs, we are also now seeing the rise of employer-pay programs such as staffing models and apprenticeships that are growing from an afterthought to a smart bet in the minds of millions of American families. Rather than incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to buy a lottery ticket that may or may not pay off with a good first job, why not enroll in a program that pays you to learn, involves no debt, and guarantees you exactly the type of job that college graduates increasingly struggle to attain? Increasingly, Americans understand that valuable learning can come in the form of a four-year degree, a certificate, an industry-backed certificate, as well as a digital portfolio skills and experiences gained through work and learning.
The demand for these alternatives did not explode overnight. In fact, it’s the result of a period of neglect of student employment and financial outcomes by traditionalist higher education. Unfortunately, graduate economic well-being or employment – let alone good first jobs – are not a clear priority for the accreditation agencies that act as gatekeepers to Title IV financial aid. Accreditation criteria focus excessively on the lowest common denominator: Do you have a governing board, and can you confirm that no one on the board or in management is a criminal? Are the programs you offer appropriate to the credentials you’re granting? Are the resources required to deliver these programs of enough quality and number?
No regional accreditor requires institutions to achieve superior or even positive student outcomes to maintain accreditation. On the contrary, poor results rarely if ever prompt the loss of accreditation, let alone sanctions. The only requirement is that institutions track and evaluate as best they can. By focusing on the tracking of outcomes rather than outcomes themselves, accreditors have abstracted themselves away from what students care about.
A further abstraction is the focus of reaccreditation on process: are you improving the ways in which you assess learning and evaluate the success of graduates? This contributes to a perception that any institution that continues to demonstrate progress on their processes will be reaccredited, regardless of how poor students’ post-graduate experiences may be. One comment I’ve heard is the following: “Visiting teams are composed of peers from other accredited institutions and there’s a strong whiff of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
This failure to emphasize these critical outcomes stems from federal policies that simply don’t ask accreditors to do so. Unless and until we implement federal policies that truly value and insist on strong student outcomes, we will continue to water down the quality of a college education.
Accreditors have a responsibility to help colleges and universities catch up to changing consumer preferences by shifting from our current process-focused system of accreditation to an outcomes-focused system focused on metrics like employment in good first jobs. I predict that failure to do so will result in an accelerated exodus of students to employer-oriented training programs, and a significant thinning in the ranks of accredited postsecondary institutions.
Educating the vast number of students and workers seeking educational opportunity and upward mobility today will require significant innovation from the current cast of accredited institutions as well as faster + cheaper alternatives. America needs a thriving traditional system of colleges and universities that minimizes debt and maximizes workforce and civic potential. Achieving this goal means facing the crisis of graduate employability and rethinking our current system of accreditation.
Ryan Craig is Managing Director of University Ventures, a firm reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment. He is the author of the upcoming “A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.”