Is college worth it? How the gig economy is reshaping higher education


After high school, Kusal Kularatne, who has been living in Kansas City, Kan. since 2013, opted to stray from the traditional collegiate path. Rather than heading off for four years of classes and a major, he decided that real-world work experience, fueled by internships and guidance from mentors, was a smarter avenue for him.

“I recognized that there are some things you just can’t learn at school,” he told Mic. “I think people need to get out of this outdated mentality that a four-year degree is the definitive path to success.”

At one point, college served as a key signal that you were armed with the experience and education needed to successfully land a job. Today’s reality is more complicated: Half of recent college grads are not using skills they learned in college at work, according to a study from the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s not to say there isn’t value in a college degree: College graduates still stand to make substantially more money — workers over the age of 18 with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $51,206 annually, as opposed to those with only a high school diploma, who earn $27,915 on average.

But everything outside the hallowed halls of higher education has shifted. College tuition charges have risen three times faster than inflation, and a research note published by Goldman Sachs suggests that tuition prices will start rising more quickly: The pace of tuition growth could bounce to 3.3% by mid-2019.

By general estimate (and assuming that tuition and fees don’t increase every year), the average cost of a four-year, private college degree is $104,400, while the cost of a public college for in-state students sits around $56,840. The United States’ estimated $1.3 trillion in student debt is projected to be more than the rest of the world combined. Meanwhile, half of today’s college students are over 25, and millennials are switching jobs an average of four times in their first decade out of college — double the rate of the prior generation.

The question now is whether the traditional college degree is keeping up with these shifts. As of 2015, 54 million people were working as freelancers or independent contractors, and they’re estimated to earn 17% more per hour than traditional employees. It’s even projected that 60% of companies plan to hire more freelancers than full-time employees, with 45% expecting to increase hiring of freelancers by 30% or more by 2020. As the gig economy expands in America and emphasis on adaptability widens, higher learning is now being reimagined to draw on hands-on work experience and specific skill sets.

For decades, attending college was justified as education for education’s sake. But crippling student debt and a workforce that thrives on flexibility now mean that students don’t just need a degree to broaden their minds. More programs are emerging for those investing in a college degree specifically to land a job — or a variety of jobs throughout their career.

“Cataclysmic shifts in how we live and work”

Kularatne, 19, decided to pursue the Young Entrepreneurs Program in Kansas City — a hands-on internship program that is centered on work experience. Participants work with businesses and mentors in engineering, marketing, product management, sales, finance and analytics to immerse themselves in the real world of work. One of the internships Kularatne participated in, at a financial technology startup, ended up offering him a full-time position.

“The most valuable thing I gained was a network of people who can vouch for me. Being as young as I am, the best thing I have to credentialize myself are the people I know,” he explains of the program.

To learn data science and machine learning, Kularatne also uses non-credential seeking courses through for-profit educational organization Udacity, which seeks to democratize education through accessible, online education opportunities, and Coursera, an online platform that uses video lectures and peer-reviewed assignments.

“These days, trends come and go in the blink of an eye. There’s no way a curriculum and textbook can keep in touch with all that. To combat this, it’s essential to be learning all the time,” Kularatne says.

Cathy Davidson, professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of The New Education, calls this the “Uberization of professions,” in which income is cobbled together from freelance work, or a variety of jobs, instead of a singular career path.

“We need to seriously rethink the infrastructures, assessment methods, curriculum, and pedagogies we use in higher education today,” she told Mic. “Most of these were specifically invented during an era of extreme, cataclysmic changes to the worlds of work and social life, namely the 19th century and the era of industrialization and urbanization.”

That’s a question that’s coming to the fore: Does it matter if you got an A on a test if you can’t put knowledge into practice?

“We are again in the midst of cataclysmic shifts in how we live and work, and, as a society, we’ve not begun to adjust these realities,” Davidson emphasizes.

Among those realities is that the payoff of a four-year degree, in terms of gainful employment, is shaky at best. About half of college graduates are underemployed, and this fall, fewer students are enrolled in college than ever.

“It’s of utmost importance that we take very seriously the demands of our time and rethink higher education, from the classroom to the boardroom,” Davidson concludes.

Andrew Hanson, senior research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says that the economy always changes, but degrees typically don’t. “When you survey college students, they really believe they’re there to prepare for a career. It’s taken a long time to get colleges and universities to go along with that fact.”

Even the bachelor’s degree itself isn’t as popular as it used to be.

“Occupationally-focused courses,” as Hanson describes them, emphasize competency in specific skill sets rather than general education requirements. A certificate or two-year degree has the benefit of continuing education, but allows individuals to dive into the workforce rather than postponing jobs while awaiting a four-year degree.

The immediacy is warranted: A study by the Freelancers Union and Upwork predicts freelancers will make up the majority of the workforce in the next decade, and with most students graduating college within six years instead of four, entering the workforce earlier can be valuable.

“The number of associate’s degrees and certificates being awarded each year is actually larger than bachelor’s degrees — we’re awarding 2 million certificates and associates compared to about 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees,” Hanson explains. “The question going forward is: Are we witnessing complete revamping of what postsecondary education in America looks like?”

For some colleges, the answer is yes.

A movement towards alternative credentials

At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, Nina Morel, dean of the College of Professional Studies, is executing the school’s e-credential badge system, launched in fall 2013. The program acknowledges pre-existing college-level competencies, knowledge and skills gained out of the classroom, and offers students the opportunity to earn “badges” — or credentials and credits — for what they can already do. The program rates the student’s level of competency in key areas, like communication and leadership, based on assessment.

Tying the workforce into the future of higher education even tighter, Lipscomb used a model from the business sector called Polaris, created by the founder of Organization Systems International. Companies like Nike, Petsmart, and Wendy’s are among those that use the model, so the university is in good company in terms of employers approving e-badging and knowledge represented through them.

“It’s sort of a verification for the student, that they can go and tell somebody ‘Yes, I know I can do this,’ and it’s also a verification for the employer that they know the person they’re hiring actually does have this competency,” Moral explains.

Changing jobs more often throughout one’s career necessitates more flexible skills than a four-year degree focused on one humanity. “We’re seeing more and more students who are more concerned about crafting their own career — they’re not dependent on an employer to do that for them,” Morel says.

Alternative credentials, like certificates or badges that ditch college majors in favor of work experience, are cropping up outside campuses, too. Thinkful, a mentor-led online school for engineers and designers, emphasizes landing a job. The program offers flexible, full-time, online courses spanning fields of web development, aimed at individuals experiencing a career switch or wanting more knowledge within the tech sector.

“The whole point of alternative education is that there’s no proxy for your success — there’s no degree, there’s no piece of paper, there’s no brand name,” explains CEO and co-founder Darrell Silver. He points out that some of our most formative learning happens outside the classroom.

“What there is, is a job. What there is, is a career,” he adds.

Thinkful allows individuals to work at their own pace with the support of one-on-one relationships with mentors. “Millennials, or people in their 20s and 30s in general, believe they’re going to have four careers,” says Silver. “Companies, similarly, are not expecting or offering full-career jobs.”

The foundation of actual work over grades, classes, and syllabi helped Patrice White, a Thinkful alum, get practical experience before joining the workforce. She says she worked on team projects from start to finish during her time there, and was involved in all aspects of bringing a product to life, from coming up with the initial concept to coding the project and presenting the final product.

“Real life experience allows you to apply what you have learned to solve problems and gives you the chance to fail,” she says. “They helped me fulfill the technical gaps that I identified for me to seek the type of job I wanted after graduation.”

As the alternative education sector gains traction in new programming and routes to furthering education outside the traditional collegiate game, there’s still a weeding out process when it comes to bad apples that prey on vulnerable students. Educational scamming is big business: For-profit schools, for example, recruit primarily in low-income communities, and target veterans and their family members, and focus on enrolling students who qualify for the “maximum amount of student aid.”

They entangle students with debt they can’t pay, credits that won’t transfer, and a degree that isn’t usable. “Diploma mills,” or organizations that profit from but never deliver on educational promises, like degrees, still seduce too many students with promises of affordability and “bachelor’s degrees” that can be earned in a few months. Red flags of an educational scam are little to no access to professors or teachers, as well as programs that are vague about the kind of work you’ll be doing, academic or otherwise.

A revised form of education

The shift away from a one-time undergraduate degree is also leading to an emphasis on continuing education. Rachael Nemeth, founder and CEO of ESL Works and an alum of The New School’s Certificate in Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages program, says she realized her undergraduate degree in Spanish and Art History, “didn’t carry much weight in the working world that I decided I wanted to be in.” So she relocated to New York to pursue her master’s degree.

However, the pull of real world experience outweighed traditional schooling. “I put my masters on hold, got to work, and started earning my certificate,” Nemeth says. “A singular skill-focused education was a manageable, career-centered pursuit which helped me build connections while I learned how to own a business the old-fashioned way — by doing it.”

That old-fashioned approach, coupled with a revised form of education that emphasized professional training, “unquestionably” helped Nemeth launch her business, she says. “I would get certificates in a dozen other skills if I could, but there is a practical element to these programs which distinguishes them from, say, a hobby,” she told Mic.

For Nemeth, there’s a direct connection between the rise of alternative learning credentials, like certificates, and real-world economic demands.

“I think the demand for different kinds of higher learning is driven by a market that demands transparency,” Nemeth says.

“Let’s say you work 50 hours a week, sleep 55 hours and week, commute 15 hours a week, and get personal time the other 48. Why not use work as a training ground?” It makes sense, especially when you factor in the gap in traditional undergraduate students who believe they are prepared for the workforce, and employers who disagree.

“My own training was hands-on, and that’s what made me a stronger professional,” Nemeth says.

Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and author of the bestseller The Global Achievement Gap, explains the shift reshaping higher education as the “innovation economy.”

“The knowledge-driven economy basically was one where the more you knew, the greater your competitive advantage,” he explains. “But the innovation economy is differently driven — it rewards initiative, it rewards smart risk-taking, it rewards learning through trial-and-error, it rewards collaboration.”

In other words, he believes today’s workforce doesn’t need good students. It seeks problem-solvers and thoughtful employees — with the hard skills to back that up.

“The college degree is an increasingly risky and expensive proposition,” says Wagner. “It used to be that a college degree guaranteed you a good job and a middle-class lifestyle. That’s simply no longer true. The world no longer cares how much people know, because Google knows everything. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”