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Is a Traditional College Degree Still Worth It?

Is a Traditional College Degree Still Worth It?
Reported by
Mercedes Vega Villar

Posted January 08, 2021

Presented By

The New York Academy of Sciences

The current pandemic has reignited the conversation about the value of a traditional four-year college degree. The need to socially distance has accelerated the adoption of remote learning, bringing to a head long-standing questions about access, cost, and overall value of higher education. With the rise of unemployment, universities must also reimagine ways to help students transition to the workforce while still offering a well-rounded education. The New York Academy of Sciences hosted a panel to discuss the role of higher education in society, how the pandemic is forcing schools to push the boundaries of the learning experience, and the transformational changes that may result from these challenges.

Webinar Highlights

  • Questions about the scalability and affordability of higher education have resurfaced as a result of the shift to online instruction during the pandemic.
  • The on-campus component of college life, a valuable part of the learning experience, is hard to replicate online; colleges and universities need to reimagine ways to help students connect and acquire hands-on experience in the digital era.
  • Traditional college degrees are still the most valuable credential in the job market, but employers are increasingly open to alternatives such as certificates or boot camps.
  • Is the role of universities to produce engaged citizens or skilled workers? By nurturing soft skills and helping students connect their academic interests with a meaningful mission, higher education may be able to play both roles simultaneously.


Nicholas B. Dirks, PhD
Nicholas B. Dirks, PhD

President and CEO, New York Academy of Sciences


Sean Gallagher
Sean Gallagher, PhD

Executive Director, Northeastern University's "Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy"

Michael Roth
Michael Roth, PhD

President, Wesleyan University

Connie Yowell
Connie Yowell, PhD

Executive Vice President, South New Hampshire University

Is Traditional Higher Ed Still Worth It?


Sean Gallagher, PhD

Northeastern University

Michael Roth, PhD

Wesleyan University

Connie Yowell, PhD

South New Hampshire University

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on public budgets and has led to vertiginous levels of unemployment, particularly among those without college degrees. Simultaneously, the pandemic has led to an unprecedented adoption of remote learning in higher education institutions across the country. Higher education leader Sean Gallagher argued that online instruction has the "ability to deliver solid outcomes and also be much more affordable." Can remote learning, with its potential for scalability, make higher education more accessible, increase access to better jobs, and therefore reduce inequality?

While remote instruction can make learning available to many, it has its pitfalls. For instance, panelists discussed the importance of the residential element of college life. As Connie Yowell noted, colleges are responsible for providing education and credentials, as well as support around the learning experience. "With COVID, we're finding that many students are really interested in the support, connection, [and] peer relationships," she said. But online education isn’t necessarily incompatible with that kind of support. Yowell explained that South New Hampshire University, which has one of the largest online student bodies in the country, offers that kind of support by establishing relationships with local partners. "Local high schools, universities, and employers deliver our online experience on their place-based context," said Yowell.

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, believes in the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). As the instructor of two Coursera classes, he said it is frustrating not to establish an impactful teacher-student relationship. "I don't know their learning experience or their outcomes very often," lamented Roth. He believes that, in on-campus settings, "learning can be amplified in serendipitous discussions," something that is lost in MOOCs. However, he thinks it’s great that COVID-19 is forcing higher education professionals to think outside the lecture hall. According to Roth, it can be beneficial for students and colleges to add online components to traditional small in-person classes. The current situation has also caused many people to reconsider conventional constraints in higher education that do not necessarily improve the student's experience. For example, Roth pointed out that a rigid academic calendar does not always make sense, as some students might prefer to work at an accelerated pace to earn their degrees quicker. "We realized we can change this,” said Roth, “[and] “I hope that flexibility stays post-COVID.”

The way Gallagher sees it, the pandemic has accelerated "omnichannel delivery," a term used in retail to refer to a multichannel approach--usually in-person and online--to deliver goods and services. According to Gallagher, up until now, most institutions delivered their learning experience either entirely online or fully in person. The pandemic has kickstarted a new era of blended delivery. "There's going to be much more fluidity in the future, and we're in a transitional period, where both institutions and people will be figuring out what modes they prefer," Gallagher said. This rapid change, he feels, warrants more research and a closer examination of outcomes.

Traditionally, universities and colleges also offer opportunities to acquire hands-on experience. Historically, experiential learning has been limited to in-person internships, apprenticeships, or rotations. But experiential learning occurs more frequently online, partly because of Covid-19 and partly because of innovations taking place before the pandemic.  After all, telecommuting is on the rise, allowing students to integrate work experience more seamlessly into their education. Roth pointed to Wesleyan University as an example of the online experiential learning model. The university gives students the chance to participate in "extended projects," or real-world projects in the field for which they can earn academic credits. "I think those classes will be very successful for the students," said Roth.

Employers push colleges to prepare students for the workforce, while students and families often push for affordability. However, "in the context of massive unemployment, we are getting a push both from families and employers to reaffirm our relevance and our value for the world of work," said Yowell. And while students should be prepared to work when they graduate, Roth noted that higher education should not just serve industry. "I don't think higher education is a training ground for a corporate America in crisis," he said, arguing that the interests of industry do not always align with the wellbeing of the citizenry. He also explained that it is hard to predict what practical skills will be required to join a rapidly-evolving workforce.

Panelists also discussed credentialing in higher education. Although employers still prioritize undergraduate and graduate degrees, they are also beginning to look at alternatives such as certificates or direct assessment of skills. "We’re in the early innings of a credentialing innovation,” said Gallagher, while highlighting that the return on investment for traditional four-year college degrees and graduate degrees is still very strong.

Yowell shared an interesting initiative that her team launched at the McArthur Foundation. “Learning happens everywhere and all the time,” she said, not only within the walls of lecture halls but also in museums, youth employment programs, libraries, and more. Making nontraditional forms of learning visible can be particularly impactful for low-income kids with less access to traditional degrees. Badges that certify alternative learning experiences can help convey competencies to institutions and employers. Importantly, badges make learning visible to the learner as well. “Learning is fundamentally about identity, and if we’re not able to talk about it and see it, it’s hard to integrate it into our identity and understand how that leads to the next thing,” Yowell remarked. Besides, these initiatives help students stay on track. In a four-year college, there is a time gap between the moment students embark on the learning experience and the moment they earn a reward that unlocks an opportunity. Students need a strong network of financial and social support to stay motivated during that long journey, something that is often a privilege of middle- and upper-class families. For Yowell, separating education into smaller, certifiable learning experiences can increase access to educational and career opportunities.

Roth agreed with the importance of making learning visible but stated that education “shouldn’t just be a badge,” cautioning against the risks of adopting a reductionist view of knowledge. Yowell agreed, saying that the challenge is to atomize and validate the educational experience while still emphasizing the learning. What is critical in this process, according to Yowell, is to make sure that employers are not the only ones driving change. Institutions of higher education must also play a critical role in this transition.

For Roth, the concept of “translation” can help universities reconcile these tensions and deliver a pragmatic liberal education. “We need to help students figure out how the subject they are interested in can translate to the work they’ll find meaningful after graduation,” he said. To facilitate that translational process, Yowell suggested that institutions might need to walk away from departmental-based ways of organizing higher education and favor multidisciplinary and problem-based approaches to learning. That way, even if classes were online, the emphasis would be on solving problems in context, creatively, and from a cross-curricular lens. This approach would promote skills that students need to thrive in the real world, both as engaged citizens of their communities and as effective workers in a 21st-century economy. And at the end of the day, that is the real benchmark of success for higher education. As Roth said, “liberal education should not be measured by what you do on campus”—or for that matter, online—“but by what you do with your education after you leave campus.”

Is a Traditional College Degree Still Worth It?