The “I Need a College Degree” Myth and Checkbox Learning

As the landscape of the workplace changes and educational institutions lag behind, the ‘need’ for a degree lessens. Our current educational system is designed to prepare people for an industrialized world that existed in the last century. The new workplace is not a production line, routine place where longevity and mastering a certain skill paid employees well in the long term. Instead, we live in a dynamic world where job roles and requirements change regularly and employees do not stick around long enough master any one particular skill. Educational institutions can no longer rely on the ‘check the box’ mentality for learning. Employers are demanding more and if they cannot get it from those who have robotically complied with societal norms, they will get it elsewhere, if they have to create the learning experiences themselves. If educational institutions want to stay relevant, they need to break down the ‘check the box’ mindset that has permeated the learning landscape for years. 

Listed below are two growth mindset videos.... I have been thinking about this for a while now as it ties in closely to the 'creating a culture of learning' mindset. I believe future employees need to cultivate the growth mindset and employers need to create a culture of learning. When the two worlds collide, cosmic transformation occurs in both the employer and the organization! 

As I have stated before, I have always loved learning and have embraced a growth mindset, long before that mindset was 'in'. It has taken me a while to realize that not everyone has the same mindset. I have long believed that growth is the key to success. Well duh, you might say... that seems obvious, but even though people believe that idea, there are many hurdles that prevent them from moving forward, embracing the idea and cultivating success. I share a few of them below. 

1. We live in a 'check the box' learning culture. From the time we are young we are conditioned to believe grades are more important than learning. Grades are the key to college and then from there, the key to a good job. Too often we sacrifice learning for the sake of 'check the box' grades. We rush students through content, provide limited feedback on the learning, give them a grade and then move them on to the next checkbox item. People who earn "A's" are winners in the world and people who don't earn "A's" are mechanically moved through the system. Students cram for tests only to regurgitate the information with about as much desire to retain it as one does to retain a bad meal... then they move on. 

We finish Kindergarten, have a wonderful graduation ceremony and then move on through the elementary years. Once again, those who earn good grades are celebrated and the rest simply show up and move on. The sad part is that grades are a poor indicator of future success. Tests are not designed to assess skill, only knowledge acquisition; and only the knowledge you currently have in your short-term memory bank. 

As we mature and move out of the elementary school years into our secondary school years, the landscape remains pretty much the same. Check the box, advance a grade and hopefully graduate, with honors – in other words, with good grades. Grades and progression through the school system are the monitors of our success. All future success, we are told, hinges on checking the box (graduating) and getting into the best college or university.  

As a society, we work hard to perpetuate this paradigm. We continue to press children and young adults alike to ‘get a high school diploma’ or ‘get a college degree’ – check that box. And there is a good reason for that… most employers won’t look at you unless you have checked that box. But in our efforts to check that box, learning get lost. Study hard, pass that test, pass that class, finish all the requirements for a degree, even if that degree does not yield the skills you need for the job. At least, you have met that basic requirement – you checked the box. Sometimes this is a very expensive box. 

Institutions of higher education are filled with students, counselors and teachers alike who promote the ‘check the box’ mindset. I have been chatting with students who may not have followed the well-trodden path to success; they did not get their college degree right out of high school and so they go back to college, for what? For additional learning, maybe, but mostly for that checkbox that will move their career forward. Schools may work hard to create more meaningful learning experiences but the students I talked to do not really care. They are not there to learn more, they are there to check a box and they will shop around until they find an institution of higher learning (or classes) that will enable them to check that box with the least amount of work and financial cost. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and I do believe that some learning does occur, even in the students with poor grades. But when we measure the cost/benefit ratio, it tends to be lacking in most cases. This is evident as employers are placing less and less value on formal education because the students they are hiring out of college do not come with a growth mindset. After 20+ years of checking boxes, many do not know how to learn and have little desire to learn. They simply want to check the box and move on to the next step in their career. Engage with some learning content, study hard, pass the test, get a good grade and move on. 

2. Employers are not positioned to cultivate the culture of learning required to educate the students coming out of college. In the past, they have relied on the schools to do that for them and the employee is simply taught the job specific skills required to do their work. 

Small employers, in particular, are finding that they do not have the time or the resources in a fast moving digital world to keep up with the competition and so they are either shaving profit margins or closing up shop leaving the larger organizations to dominate the career landscape. 

As a society, we are in a unique position. We can continue to perpetuate this situation or we can pioneer new ways of thinking and learning. 

Competency-based education holds promise for the student and the institutions of learning. Let’s define clearly and independently what individuals need during their time in the higher education system to prepare them for the jobs they currently plan to pursue. A ‘degree’ may look different for each person, even if they are in the same field. As long as we are providing quality coursework and students are not forced to take classes they have either already completed in their secondary education experience, does it matter if Sally and Joe have a different path to the same degree? This also puts more pressure on secondary and elementary schools to make sure that students are learning what they need to learn before they are moved on to higher levels. We are assuming that two people who enter the same job will be doing the same thing, which is not necessarily true in our diverse workplace. 

The core skills needed for all jobs are:

  • Creativity
  • Problem Solving
  • Team Building
  • Resilience
  • Growth Mindset

How do you do that? There are as many ways to do it as there are people who need a growth mindset. Choice Schools has some great ideas. Read more about them here.

The path to a ‘degree’ needs to change along with the teaching methodology. Learning comes in all shapes, sizes, and experiences. Indulge students in real world experiences with meaningful internships, opportunities to take classes where they feel they need the most help in their job roles and engage them in real life learning through Action Learning programs. 

Until we get rid of the ‘check the box’ mentality and look at learning as a unique and individual path each person must pursue to achieve their own goals, we will fail our students in cultivating that growth mindset. 

If schools do not embrace what employers need, they will find their market fading as prices for education increase and the quality of education stagnates or lags behind. If students cannot easily assess a cost/benefit ratio for their time spent in formal education, they will opt out and find employers who value a culture of learning where their growth mindset flourishes. Why pay to learn when you can get paid to learn. Read more about some examples of non-traditional college pathways to attainment here. Not listed in this article are many information technology and healthcare related apprenticeships, boot camps and real life work experience programs. 

Who will take the lead? Who will pioneer the new model(s) for schools?

Which will organizations partner with educational institutions to provide on-going learning to their employees as they develop the culture of learning and foster a growth mindset?

Share examples here of any innovative approaches to learning that you have encountered. Sharing their stories will illuminate the learning and organizational landscape for future stars!