Postsecondary Success Notes | April 2023

Skills and Degrees Need to Be a "Both, And"
Student in classroom


Last week I found myself in San Diego at the ASU-GSV Summit. It was great to connect with partners, other funders, and some of the most innovative thinkers in the field of education technology. I’ve been attending the summit for years, but I’ve never seen the kind of frothy hype this year showcased. My sense is that the rapid advances in AI are at least partly responsible for the buzz and excitement across hallway conversations and panel discussions. I share some of that enthusiasm but will hold my thoughts on that topic until later this summer when we have more concrete actions to share.

For now, I want to talk about another theme I picked up on at ASU-GSV – the dynamic between skills and degrees. This has been a long-standing topic of interest and debate at the summit, but this year it seemed to almost be at a fever pitch. Riding high on the waves of advances in data, competency-based learning models, AI, and rapidly changing job markets, some members of the “skilling crowd” seemed to be throwing haymakers toward the traditional college degree this year. And yet, completing a college degree still remains one of the best predictors of socioeconomic mobility.

I do think skilling-related approaches will continue to grow, for many of the same reasons I believe apprenticeships will grow. They both make a lot of sense in today’s rapidly changing economy and the expectations of the labor market. However, I think some of these debates about skills and degrees create a false dichotomy and miss the power of the BOTH/AND. If you’ve ever taken an improv class, you know what I’m talking about. In improv, you never say “no” to a suggestion from your scene partner, you just build on the prompt by thinking in terms of “yes, and…” I would argue that we’re in a similar moment in the dynamic between skills and degrees.

A postsecondary space that only focuses on skilling misses out on at least two critical dimensions: 1) It ignores many of the non-economic benefits of equitable value, to both the individual and society, in the form of a more informed citizenry, higher levels of volunteer activity, and better health outcomes, among many other benefits; and 2) It sidesteps the reality that many of today’s skills are the first things that AI will automate tomorrow.

Today’s college students need both discrete skills AND interdisciplinary ways of thinking in order to navigate a rapidly changing world and responsibly leverage many of the technological advances (like AI) that are accelerating this change. A both/and approach needs more attention if we want to truly deliver on the vision of equitable value. I would encourage you to listen to some thoughts on this topic from my ASU-GSV co-panelists, Johnny Taylor from SHRM, Deborah Quazzo from GSV, and Scott Pulsipher from Western Governors University (WGU).

I would also highlight an example of this both/and approach in action. The University of Texas System, which has been highlighted in our Equitable Value work as having the kinds of data to really analyze these types of issues, has looked at their own data by institution, program, and student demographics, and is now identifying programs where economic mobility might be enhanced by embedding certificates into existing degree programs. I’m excited to see what we can all learn from this. The world is moving fast, and while we can’t predict where it will head, this kind of both/and thinking seems to offer promise – for students, for institutions, and employers.

Patrick Methvin

Patrick Methvin

Director, Postsecondary Success

Quick Takes

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