When Brenden Martin launched Joe Coffee, a mobile ordering and rewards app for indie coffee shops, he thought himself more than qualified for the challenge. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Digital Technology Management from Washington State University and years of experience working in Seattle’s coffee scene, Martin anticipated relatively few hurdles in starting a business—until he realized he knew very little about building an app. “Despite graduating with a degree in digital technology, I realized I needed to learn to code,” Martin said.

Martin enrolled in a coding bootcamp through General Assembly, but, after building an early version of the Joe Coffee minimum viable product, or MVP—a bare-bones version of an app with just enough features to show off to potential investors and customers—Martin realized he lacked another vital skill. So he enrolled in a second bootcamp, this time focused on UX design, run by Springboard. For his final capstone project, he rebuilt the Joe Coffee MVP from the ground up. Joe Coffee went on to raise $3.5 million in seed funding; today, the app is used by over 1,000 indie coffee shops across the US and has a total evaluation of $25 million. “When I interview UX designers and engineers now, I know how to talk the talk,” Martin continued.

Martin is among a growing number of business-minded graduates who are facing an oversaturated—and overeducated—job market. Despite an overabundance of degree-holders, the US job market still faces a critical skills gap. Almost 40% of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs, according to research from McKinsey. Meanwhile, 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job, showing that the college degree no longer serves as a guarantee of employment.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the tech industry. Where it was once impossible to break into a software engineering or data science role without a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in hand, major tech companies like Apple, Google, and IBM have now abolished degree requirements for job seekers. Today, startups base their hiring decisions on a candidate’s skills rather than their alma mater. Experience—not education—is what matters.

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COVID-19 has only accelerated doubts about the true value of a college degree in a post-pandemic job market. Campus closures this fall have highlighted the extent to which the value proposition of a university education stems from the in-person experience: the ability to join student organizations, network with faculty and peers, and take advantage of campus amenities. Unable to offer these perks during a pandemic, more than 70 universities including NYU, George Washington University, and Brown University are facing class-action lawsuits from students seeking full or partial tuition refunds for a product they say has been watered down. Synchronous classes conducted on Zoom still require students to log in at an allotted time and participate in class discussions—but they make for a stilted experience “absent of all relationship connections from earlier in the semester,” according to an NYU lawsuit.

I think most universities are hoping to ride out the pandemic, but they need to make adaptations and changes and rethink how they deliver instruction,” said Earl Co, a former technologist at NYU Tandon’s School of Engineering who spent four years developing online courses and interactive modules for NYU’s computer science curriculum. “And it’s not about just throwing up classes on Zoom. They really need to be designed with the Gen-Z digital native in mind.”

The new learning ecosystem

While higher education enrollment tends to surge during an economic recession as laid-off workers seek to upskill or switch careers, a different pattern is emerging this time. Students disenchanted with traditional higher education have begun to seek alternative credentials to upskill quickly and cost-effectively in a fraught economy. For many, this has come in the form of online courses and bootcamps that offer flexibility, a remote learning schedule, and a network of career support services that can turn you from a novice into a professional in less than a year. (At a fraction of the cost of a college degree.) 

Since May, one in five Americans said they plan to enroll in an education program in the next six months, according to a survey by the Strada Education Network. Since the onset of the pandemic, aspiring adult learners—categorized as those without a college degree who are interested in additional education—have shown a consistent preference for non-degree (25%) and skills training options (37%). 

These alternative education pathways include online industry-specific certifications, bootcamps, apprenticeships, massive open online courses (MOOCs), micro-credentials, and even lower-cost master’s degrees offered exclusively online.  Enrollments at Coursera, a major MOOC provider, surged by 640% from mid-March to mid-April compared to the same period last year, while enrollment at Udemy, another MOOC provider, was up 400% between February and March. 

Often, the appeal of these virtual, asynchronous programs is that they’re faster, cheaper, and more convenient than a traditional degree. Their narrow focus means students learn on-the-job skills and receive one-on-one mentorship geared towards a particular profession, whereas a college degree doesn’t necessarily translate to a specific career path. 

Co believes a “higher ed bubble” is imminent, in the aftermath of which only publicly funded state and local colleges and the Ivy Leagues will remain standing—the former by virtue of their relative affordability, and the latter for their name recognition. 

If COVID-19 has done anything positive, it has shown the world that online learning can be more than what people expected,” says John Vivolo, director of online education at the Katz School of Health and Science at Yeshiva University. “Fear and negative perceptions of online learning have been greatly reduced.” 

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Should universities get with the program?

Looking at the success of online bootcamps and courses, many universities are now trying to adopt a similar approach by launching their own bootcamps and online certification courses. University bootcamps aim to combine the name recognition and network of a traditional university with the industry savvy and ed-tech infrastructure of a bootcamp. 

More than 60 university bootcamps exist today; many are formed by universities partnering with existing bootcamp providers and are generally regarded as feeders for an institution’s undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Springboard recently announced a new partnership with the University of New Hampshire to offer two new bootcamps—one in UI/UX design and one in machine learning engineering. Students who graduate from the program are awarded UNH alumni status and access to the university’s alumni benefits package.

This type of partnership benefits both universities and bootcamps: former bootcamp grads are highly likely to apply for a master’s degree or other continuing ed program years down the line when they’re looking for a promotion or their next job. “I could take our data science bootcamp and have a great career as a data scientist, but maybe three to five years from now I might need to upskill or reskill again, and that’s where those other pathway opportunities come in,” said Brian DeKemper, head of university partnerships at Springboard.

The recent upswing in education entrepreneurship is further evidence that the current higher education model may have run its course. Projects on Kickstarter range from startups like Codescty, which uses original hip hop and music videos to teach computer science projects, to podcasts like Moneysplained, which provides financial education for adults on everything from stock options to saving for retirement. “You can get knowledge and experience through material and content that is free, available online and widespread,” said Marlene Leekang, director of the Lawrence N. Field Center at Baruch College, the City University of New York. “I think that’s the hidden truth in education.”

Faced with a grim post-pandemic future, many universities are now grappling with whether to invest in online learning and executive education as a supplementary revenue stream—or even to make online learning a core product in the event traditional in-person instruction never reaches prior levels once university campuses are permitted to reopen. 

Leekang believes universities should gear up for a mostly virtual future. “We have been stuck for so long in such outdated and archaic ways of servicing students where it’s always been just face to face,” she continued. “Truthfully, we can provide so much more because we’re now allowing virtual sessions.”

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An adaptable education model

Any educational model that hopes to survive in the future will likely need to be highly adaptable and fluid, combining the fundamentals of higher education with the flexibility and career support offered by online schools and bootcamps. 

Adaptive learning technology is one possible solution to offering bespoke education at scale. It refers to the delivery of custom learning experiences that address the needs of the learner rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Adaptive learning platforms like Scootpad allow teachers to set up online assessments and progress check-ins for students, for example; while an instructor can only do this with one or two learners at a time, AI-powered adaptive learning helps scale the benefits to thousands of students. 

Data-driven education models also provide a continuous feedback loop that empowers the learner to address their own skills gaps and become less reliant on an instructor’s divided attention—something traditional education models have struggled to provide for decades. “[People] don’t always need a two- or four-year degree, or they don’t need graduate school,” Michelle Weise, Strada’s chief innovation officer, said at the 2019 Strada National Symposium. “They need something precise to move them along.”

Bootcamps are already one step ahead of higher education institutions in this regard. The onus of career readiness is on the institution, rather than the student. Many bootcamps offer a job guarantee, which removes the risk of investing in one’s education by offering a full tuition refund to students who don’t find a job in their industry within six months of graduation. Others offer income-share agreements, which take tuition from a student’s salary once they land a job. 

“Now, more than six months into the worst crisis since World War II, we are all starting to realize that we will not be going backward even if COVID-19 disappears,” Vivolo said. “Nor should we.”