THE BLOG

Switching Away from the Degree

01/23/2014 09:12 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

There has been a lot of talk about moving away from the degree. Education and business leaders have declared the degree "broken" and "obsolete," and charged it with being an unreliable indicator of any real knowledge or skills. According to a recent survey, almost 60 percent of employers do not think that U.S. colleges and universities are adequately preparing students for the workforce. This system is obviously not working, but we are having a hard time switching away from it, partially because we do not yet have an agreed-upon system to replace it and partially because the costs of switching are seen as too high.

A recent University Ventures article describes how disruptions in travel and real estate met with opposite results due to the costs of switching away from the dominant model: Expedia successfully moved customers away from travel agents, while Zillow did not successfully move customers away from real estate agents. The reason was the vastly different costs of switching -- make a mistake in travel and you have a bad vacation; make a mistake in buying or selling a house and you have a significantly bigger problem. Real estate agent Richard Morrison put it aptly, "Look, real estate agents are still a thriving breed because the outcomes matter so deeply to people."

In education, the agents are colleges and universities: students trust them to prepare them for the workforce, and employers trust them to provide well-prepared candidates. But despite the fact that neither the students nor the employers are getting what they want, the switching costs of trying something else are perceived as too high. For students, a bachelor's degree translates into an additional $1 million over the course of a lifetime; for employers, a degree serves as a filter for wading through the average of 250 resumes they receive for every job opening.

However, there are some companies that are starting to move away from the agent system and toward a model that is beneficial for both students and employers. Not surprisingly, the trendsetter in this movement is the tech industry. This industry has faced one of the largest skills gaps as technology has advanced and traditional computer science programs have failed to prepare students to meet the skyrocketing demand -- four-year programs take too long and many do not teach the newest languages that companies are looking for.

In response, tech companies have been partnering with code schools, intensive coding programs. Through these partnerships, students attain real job skills in a short period of time and employers have access to a pool of well-trained applicants. The success of these programs has been astounding. DevBootCamp, the first code school, now has locations in Chicago and San Francisco and will soon open in New York. Hack Reactor boasts a 98 percent graduate hiring rate, with the average salary around $110,000--after only 12 weeks of intense training. OrangeSoda, an internet marketing company, described these types of coding programs as "one of the quickest ways to find the right technical talent for our company. We know that graduates of these programs were taught effectively because they learned from a mentor and not just by sitting in a class."

Education needs to move away from agents and toward a system that actually works. The first step in this transformation is for employers to recognize that the skills gap can only be filled by actual skills, not by degrees. The switching cost may seem high now, but time will reveal that this is only an illusion.