Making sense of the future of education and work

What intrinsic value does a degree from a traditional accredited university carry these days?

It’s a complicated question when you consider the examples of Jake Schwartz and Jeremy Snepar. Both had graduated from big-name universities — Schwartz from Yale University and Snepar from Cornell University. And both entered the workforce feeling like they “had no skills.”

“It was 2010 and I had graduated from a fancy undergrad institution and realized I had no actual skills,” Schwartz said.

A subsequent MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business led to another realization. “There’s sort of an investment mentality, but there’s also sort of a toll-taking mentality,” involved with going to business school, he said.

That was when he decided the system needed to change. Schwartz is now the CEO and co-founder of General Assembly, a private education organization that has taught skills like Web development, data science and digital marketing to some 40,000 people around the world. It also trains employees of 150 Fortune 500 companies in new skills related to their jobs.

Snepar’s story is similar. He emerged from Cornell University with an undergraduate degree in Economics and is the CEO and founder of New York Code + Design Academy, which runs intensive workshops focused on software development and app design.

The pair told their stories as part of an October panel discussion moderated by Bloomberg TV’s Scarlet Fu on “The Future of Education and Work” at the new Cornell Tech campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island.

The panel’s third participant was Leah Belsky, vice president of global enterprise development at Coursera, a website that offers online courses from 150 universities including Stanford, Yale, Duke, and even international institutions like the University of London and China’s Nanjing University. It began when two Stanford professors offered their courses on artificial intelligence for free on the Web. So far, 28 million people have registered for its courses.

So are they re-inventing traditional degree-based college and graduate education or replacing it?

“I think there will always be a generational pull to college degrees, although it’s weakening,” Snepar said. “But, most of our students are coming to us post-college,” and, increasingly, from high schools.

Coursera, on the other hand, sees itself as helping traditional universities update the means through which they deliver their courses. “We’re helping those universities innovate, and partnering with companies to do so. I do think we’re in the process of re-inventing the degree, starting with the Master’s Degree and then moving down likely to B.A. degrees over time,” Belsky said.

Coursera’s roadmap calls for using its platform for online courses to allow students to earn a full degree without paying for it up-front. “You can take the degree course-by-course and pay as you go,” and – at a cost that’s potentially disruptive – a Coursera MBA costs about $20,000 versus $140,000 at a traditional university. Of course, it all depends on how you measure the real cost.

“The bet we’re making is that there are tons of people that would like to get a Master’s degree, but who can’t afford to stop working while they do it, or who simply can’t afford the investment for a traditional degree,” said Belsky.

Schwartz said, over the long term, society is evolving its definition of “getting an education.”

“I believe society is on a 25- to 40-year journey of unbundling what it means to go to college, and turning it into something different,” he said.

Aside from its primary role of educating young adults to enter the work force, there are other benefits to the traditional college experience. “One is just the role of babysitting your young adults, because what else are they going to do after finishing high school?” he said with a laugh. Another benefit: “You become a citizen of the world, and I don’t think anyone else on this panel is claiming to do that.”

But the third benefit is to prepare people for their “economic life” he said. “College is the ticket, it’s upward mobility, and yet, it’s the thing that colleges feel the least responsible for and are least set-up to actually deliver,” Schwartz said. “That’s why you’re seeing the people on this panel creating ways to bridge that gap with solutions and new pathways to do that piece.”

The urgency is increasing, says Schwartz, because corporations are under pressure to grow, and cannot tolerate what he called “extended apprenticeships.”

“There’s an expectation that your new hires should add value right away,” he said.

Snepar pointed to additional evidence of a broken economic model in education: Student debt. The total amount exceeded $1.3 trillion by the end of 2016, higher than the total amount of credit card debt.

“People are coming out these schools and not getting jobs, or they are taking jobs just to service their debt,” he said. “There is a cycle where people are basically paying banks for interest on debt they took to get a degree that’s worthless. They could be buying houses, they could be buying cars, they could be buying consumer goods, and generating more jobs.”

The cycle isn’t going to break, said Snepar, until new participants in the education marketplace cause enough pressure on traditional universities to force them to change. Much of the demand for change, Belsky said, is coming from the end consumers of the labor market: employers. Corporate training is worth about $20 billion annually, she said, but much it is focused on basic training related to onboarding: simple skills and general workplace issues like avoiding sexual harassment.

“Companies are now actively jumping in to help fill the skills gap,” she said. Big tech companies have realized that if they can’t find enough skilled workers, they’re going to have trouble achieving their corporate objectives. So they have started offering certificates in cloud development and other skills, for example.

In other cases, companies will have to look at education as a retention tool, especially as employees leave more often for jobs at other companies, Snepar said. “Fifty years ago, you’d take a job at Kodak and you’d be there for your entire career. That doesn’t happen anymore. People tend to stay three or four years,” he said. “Companies are going to have to start introducing short-term training, pretty much as a retention tool,” and maybe even a recruitment tool too.

You can watch the entire discussion here.