Fifteen years ago, the New York Times published an article about the “tuition game,” in which colleges raised tuitions to compete with rival schools and, in response, saw notable increases in their enrollments. In fact, enrollments continued to grow throughout the next four years. And then, suddenly, they began to decline. They have maintained their steady decline ever since.
1.7 million fewer students are enrolled today than were enrolled 10 years ago. Simultaneously, the cost of college has increased over 25%, the percentage of courses taught by tenured professors has steadily declined, and students are leaving degree programs with more than $30,000 in debt and often without the skills necessary for lucrative jobs. While the data continues to demonstrate the financial benefits of a college degree, it’s evident that many learners are beginning to question the return on investment of the college experience and are searching for alternative ways to get an education.
But can students get the full benefits of a college degree if they’re not getting a traditional undergraduate experience? And what role should colleges play in providing students these opportunities? As the pandemic rolls on and institutions face the latest enrollment numbers, many colleges are now beginning to wonder: Is unbundling the degree program the future of higher education?
A college education comprises more than in-class coursework. Unbundling education means breaking down or dismantling the college experience into its components: discipline-centered classroom learning, peer and professor networking, post-education resources and skills development, and experiences gained from student life.
While few are questioning the value of experiences gained from an on-campus degree program, many are questioning the cost. They argue that there are equally valuable experiences to be gained from early employment, mentors, and locally offered skills programs. Learners seek access to affordable, flexible courses and credentialing programs.
Unbundling the traditional degree program experience means allowing learners to earn degree-bearing credits from multiple sources and institutions, thereby curating their own course of study and personalizing their education to their skillsets, passions, and career goals.
Based on the results of Jenzabar’s independent survey, it’s clear that students want more educational flexibility at a lower cost. And if we look at the recent rise in new student enrollments (students over the age of 24) and the increase of part-time graduate school enrollments, it seems that more and more learners are seeking an education they can balance with their work and family lives.
Correspondingly, many institutions have already begun to offer unbundled educational options. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been steadily growing in popularity. While students can’t count these courses towards a degree, their popularity speaks to a need for similar educational opportunities that carry credits.
In fact, low-cost, credit-bearing courses emerged to address America’s growing skills gap. Many colleges and universities have begun to offer micro-credentials—short, narrowly focused programs of study that can be added to an existing degree program or completed to earn a standalone certificate.
There are those who predict that higher education’s current decline is pandemic-based and enrollment numbers will surge again once we are past this public health crisis. For institutions that believe firmly in the importance of a liberal arts education, this is hopeful news. After all, the data still suggests that the cost of a college degree is worth the steep investment.
But unless institutions can greatly reduce the cost of the on-campus degree program experience, provide students with job-securing skills, and better support first-generation, minority, and working students, they may see enrollment rates continue to fall.
One of the biggest indicators that shows why unbundling the educational experience might be necessary to the future of higher education is the growing number of nontraditional students looking to enroll in a college degree program. Nontraditional students often possess jobs, families, and other commitments and are looking for more flexible education options.
It’s not just the growing demographic of nontraditional students who want more personalized, flexible educations. The number of students seeking more cost-effective ways to obtain jobs skills and college degrees has been growing year by year. By offering a-la-carte, competency-based courses and programs alongside traditional degree programs, institutions can attract a wider range of students and potentially boost enrollment.
It might be far-fetched to imagine the eradication of a four-year, on-campus education experience. But what the past 10 years have made clear is that not all students desire—nor can they afford—a traditional degree program.
Unbundling traditional programs into off-base courses, micro-credentials, and other certificate programs, and allowing students to put those courses and credits toward a college degree can cater to learners who need more personalized, flexible education options. This, in turn, gives students the opportunity to fully recognize the value of their education, become lifelong learners, and succeed in their career endeavors.