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Posted by on Jun 18, 2014 in Education, Featured | 9 comments

Could a Four-Year Degree Be on the Fritz?


American higher education certainly has its problems. According to a recent article by The Atlantic, it is now impossible to work one’s way through college. Since the 1970s, the cost of a four-year degree has skyrocketed, consistently growing at a higher rate than wages and inflation. Without having ample support from one’s family or incurring massive debt it’s almost impossible to pay for college.

Despite the high cost of education, a degree is in many ways necessary for today’s young adults. Without college, a person’s career prospects are limited to say the least. According to a study by David Autor at MIT, a family of college graduates also earns about $58,000 more per year than one of non-graduates. To many of us, that makes the initial cost of college necessary even though it’s far from ideal.

However, a recent partnership between AT&T and education company Udacity suggests there may be an alternative to traditional higher education. Here are some details about this partnership and why you might consider another option if your sole purpose in going to college is getting a job after graduation.

The Udacity Approach to Higher Education

Udacity was founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and aims to provide the basic skills employees will need for certain entry-level jobs. There have long been vocational programs to give graduates the skills they need for building a new home, fixing cars or repairing HVAC systems. However, Udacity is one of the first white-collar job vocational programs.

Udacity is not necessarily meant to give you the same education you’d receive at a four-year college. Rather, its purpose is to give students specific skills and experience that can help them find a job. Udacity’s so-called nanodegrees are available in web development, iOS systems and data analysis. The courses cost about $200 per month and are completed in a matter of months, making them attractive to low-income adults who may not have thought college was a possibility.

One of the reasons Udacity thinks its nanodegrees are valuable is that technology is always changing and in a matter of years what you’ve learned could be almost obsolete in the industry. The company envisions students will take a number of courses throughout their careers to keep as up-to-speed as possible. The education model is one of continuous, flexible learning throughout a person’s career, rather than spending four years as a full-time student and then having little formal education afterwards.

Career-Driven Education

With their nanodegree programs, Udacity hopes students will be able to begin their careers fairly soon after they graduate high school. Nanodegree courses focus on practical real-world skills that get students from the classroom to office as soon as possible. University professors and technology companies alike contribute to the curriculum.

Getting an entry-level tech job with less than a year of post-secondary school may sound too good to be true, but tech companies are working to make it possible. Companies like Cloudera, Salesforce, AT&T and Autodesk have partnered with Udacity, and hope to hire some of its nanodegree graduates. AT&T is offering Udacity scholarships to prospective students and is reserving 100 internship spots for recent graduates.

The Solution to the Education Problem?

Part of the problem with American higher education is that we’re falling behind other countries in terms of the number of college graduates we produce. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 33% of Americans between ages 25 and 34 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to around 39 percent in the United Kingdom, Poland and South Korea, and about 45% in Norway. The U.S. was once the world leader in college degree holders, which should make us question why we’re falling behind.

Could alternative higher education options help us bridge this gap? What do you think about nanodegrees? Do you think they could eventually replace four-year degrees?

Image by Mike Mozart