Should We Unbundle the Degree?

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Jan 09, 2020

The topic of unbundling the degree still brings mixed responses, even in discussions I had while attending a number of conferences during 2019. Some support unbundling the degree because it offers students greater control over their education – and a more direct path toward successful workforce preparedness. Others expressed concern that unbundling the degree would compete with traditional degree programs on campuses already battling declining retention rates.

However, recent evidence combined with those same declining retention rates tells me that perhaps the time has come for the conversation to no longer be about if higher education should unbundle the degree, but how.

Many recent reports indicate that employers find recent graduates lacking in soft skills, sometimes referred to as employability skills, that are critical for career success. According to The Hechinger Report, 76-90% executives and hiring managers surveyed most value the following skills:

  • Verbal and written communication

  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning

  • Ethical decision-making

  • Applying knowledge to real-world situations

  • Works independently; prioritization of tasks, time management

  • Takes initiative, proactive, self-motivated

  • Effective team working

  • Complex problem-solving

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently shared that 3 in 4 employers are struggling to find graduates proficient in these necessary soft skills. In fact, SHRM indicates that 51 percent of its members surveyed believe higher education is not helping stem the shortage in soft and employability skills. According to recent parallel surveys of employers and students by the National Association of Colleges of Employers (NACE), there is a vast discrepancy between the percentage of employers and students who rate recent graduates as proficient in “career readiness” skills.

Compounding this challenge is that companies seeking candidates with four-year degrees has become the norm, even for positions that previously required an associate degree or less. The four-year degree has become the standard for “well-qualified” when in fact, many of the graduates were not fully qualified, due to a lack of the skills listed above.

In response to this, many companies including Apple, Google, Bank of America and IBM have stripped away the four-year degree requirement in favor of hiring candidates equipped with competency in the right skills.

This brings us back to the question about unbundling the degree. If companies are rethinking how they hire and choosing skills over degrees, shouldn’t we also be rethinking how we prepare students for those jobs – particularly the underserved and lower-income students – and offer them the most efficient and cost-effective route to creating a future? I say yes.

Unbundling the general education path and aligning it around workforce needs means students can customize their college experience and develop competencies in the skill sets required for their chosen career. Including those missing soft skills. It means students can both increase their likelihood of being hired and achieving career success. And isn’t that what students believe a college education is all about? Let’s make it so.

Carrie O’Donnell is the CEO of O’Donnell Learn, a leading learning experience (LX) design firm dedicated to helping learners achieve their goals and flourish in life. ODL is passionate about partnering with institutions and their faculty to deliver learner-centered design and innovation.


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