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Is a bachelor's degree still worthwhile?

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 (Reuters)

For a long time, the argument against earning a bachelor’s degree was largely a question of dollars and cents. Everyone understood the value of a degree, but not everyone could afford one. 

Now the argument is starting to shift to “dollars and sense,” meaning that potential students are starting to ask not only if a degree is economically prudent, but also whether it makes sense as a credential?

Recently Gallup and the Lumina Foundation released a survey indicating that just 11 percent of business leaders “strongly agree” that today’s graduates possess the skills and competencies needed to succeed in their workplace. 

Many employers will tell you that being able to complete tasks, solve problems and deliver an outcome is what matters most.

In sharp contrast is another recent Gallup survey where 96 percent of college and university chief academic officers indicated that they are “extremely or somewhat confident” in their graduate’s workforce readiness.

A university degree used to be a necessity because it was the only way to access the knowledge required to master a subject. 

Today, content is so freely available that this is no longer the case. Instead, now a degree only shows that someone has tested and verified knowledge to accreditation standards. But, looking at the results of this study, I have to ask whether the standards are in line with employer needs. 

The answer seems to be that it depends.

On the one hand, competencies are far more important than degrees. Many employers will tell you that being able to complete tasks, solve problems and deliver an outcome is what matters most. 

I run a tech company that creates software for colleges and universities, and while a degree is one way for a job applicant to show us that they’ve mastered a skill set, many companies, including ours, are testing potential hires to get a first-hand look at their skills. 

Someone who is one credit hour shy of a degree is left without a credential, despite the fact that they may have achieved the same amount of knowledge as someone who attained their full degree. 

Further, someone who is able to put together their own curriculum based on books, Internet resources, MOOCs and more will pick up a plethora of soft skills in addition to their chosen subject matter.

There are, however, fields where degrees are still very much relevant. Ask any physician, lawyer, nurse practitioner or engineer. 

Further, a bachelor’s degree puts immense focus on critical thinking, writing and other important skills that may not be enough for an individual to be successful in the job market, but certainly lay a good foundation.

So, is a bachelor’s degree worthwhile? Despite broad sweeping proclamations that every American should look to the bachelor’s degree as a path to success, this isn’t always the most sensible option. The bachelor’s degree, while a critical path for many, is no longer the stronghold of information, nor a guarantor of success.

To make sense of the contradictions, there needs to be a lens adjustment regarding how we view higher education. 

Our company recently commissioned a research project interviewing mid-size-to-large employers across North America. We found that 70 percent of employers say today’s employees need continuous training and education just to keep up with their jobs. It makes sense that employers don’t see graduates as workforce prepared, because by the time they graduate, much of their knowledge is already starting to expire.

The bachelor’s degree is far from dead, but it can no longer be considered the main act—at least not in its current form. The one-time degree originated when new knowledge and best practices changed very little from generation to generation. Now, this information changes almost daily.

Going forward, students, employers and colleges and universities will need to consider how they can create a system that not only equips students for today, but also for tomorrow. Whether that will include a bachelor’s degree is anyone’s guess.

Shaul Kuper is president and CEO of Destiny Solutions, a company that provides business software solutions for non-traditional divisions of leading higher education institutions, including Penn State World Campus, Stanford Center for Professional Development and eCornell.