“Higher education institutions need to demonstrate genuine value – rather than being the conferrers of degrees.”

Is a university degree still worth it?

Reading Time: 4:55 minutes

By Jerry Sim, Business Architect, Higher Education, Southeast Asia, SAP

Rethinking the value of a degree

Growing up in Singapore (or Asia in general), many of us have been entrenched with the perception that getting a university degree is a prerequisite for subsequent life and career opportunities. This has also long been the value proposition of universities. But with degrees becoming increasingly common, is it really still the case now? The millennial generation in modern society may disagree.

  • Top employers no longer require degrees. Once a differentiator, this paper credential is now struggling to make its mark as a distinguishing factor to quality employers. With other ways of assessing aptitude and capability, more and more top employers no longer require employees to have degrees. Among them are Google and Apple.
  • Students don’t end up in the fields they study. Furthermore, unless one reads a specific discipline such as law or medicine, many who study other subjects – such as engineering or economics – don’t end up in these fields in their careers. I personally read engineering but soon realized after my first year that I didn’t want to pursue that field as a career.
  • Viable alternatives to learning. Not supporting the case is the proliferation of online learning and non-traditional players (Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs) that are providing viable alternatives to learning.
  • High costs. It also doesn’t help that university educations are costly. In Singapore, for instance, citizens and permanent residents get heavily subsidized rates ranging from around S$8,000 to S$29,000 for medicine/dentistry per annum. To put it into perspective, that’s S$32,000 (for a 4-year program) to nearly S$145,000 (for the 5-year medicine/dentistry program) even with grants. Without these subsidies, fees soar to around S$30,000 S$155,000 per year. For many families, it’s a burden and challenge to fund these costs.

These factors lead many youths to rethink their approach toward pursuing higher education. The traditional university business model and curriculum that supports it may not be enough to satisfy what students expects of the “outcome” of a university education.

Beyond conferring degrees

In the face of this, higher education institutions need to demonstrate genuine value – rather than being the conferrers of degrees.

To demonstrate merit, universities used to focus on institutionally measured “student success”. They used metrics such as first-year retention, graduation rates and time-to-degree. But these KPIs have little perceived value to a potential enrollee or an existing student.

Today’s students began their learning journeys in the digital world. They are used to high standards in digital experiences set by retailers, banks and big techs such as Google, Apple and Facebook. These students are empowered, opinionated and demanding. And they care more about their experience than the outcome of a degree – which to them is no longer the end-all. In a digital trends survey conducted by McGraw Hill, it was discovered that over 70% of respondents expect digital learning to be tailored to the individual, much like our social media feed. Expectations of personalization are real.

Generating genuine value: Empowered by data

But there’s no reason not to woo these students in the same way big techs, for example, have.

The digital world offers bountiful opportunities for higher education institutions to harness the power of data. And become intelligent enterprises where every university decision is informed by data. This would allow universities to personalize each stage of a student’s journey to transform student experience. And create value in areas that matter.

  • Insights for careers

For instance, not every student knows clearly his or her career ambition when they first enroll. What if university data can provide more insights?

Universities already have students’ operational data (O-data) such as Student Jack’s profile, his past co-curricular activities and the subjects he did well in. Imagine if the university also gathers experience data (X-data) such as John’s thoughts on teaching pedagogies and the curriculum. The combination of X+O data coupled with advanced machine learning could inform the university that profiles like John have proven success in the field of software engineering. Contributions of alumni who have exceled in the field can be highlighted.

This insight would be a value-add to John.

  • Personalizing learning

What if the university goes further to personalize Jack’s learning?

Through its learning management system, the university learns that Jack has issues with a particular topic. It confirms so when it marries this with Jack’s feedback. This results in actionable insight for university advisors to reach out to Jack – and with early intervention, resolve the problem.

By capturing unstructured data on social media, the university also discovers that Jack’s cohort is interested in Design Thinking. This is already offered as a separate program in the university. Knowing their preferences, the university can repackage aspects of this course as a digital teaser – which may draw students to the full program subsequently.

  • Engagement beyond graduation

What if the university continues engagement beyond Jack’s graduation?

At this point, Jack confirms his interest in software engineering. Several successful software engineers call this university as their alma mater. With an opt-in mentorship initiative, the university’s intelligent system matches Jack to the alumni willing to guide him.

Jack is employed. His employer supports lifelong learning. The university, having kept in touch with Jack, leverages the relationship it has built with him to bolster executive education opportunities. Jack is delighted with the spot-on recommendations. The university enhances its financial bottom line.

Becoming intelligent universities

These are just examples of how intelligent universities can create value.

Universities are charged with the mission of quality education so that students can in turn become contributing members of society. Today, with digitalization blurring the lines between where the student ends and where technology starts, institutions need to become intelligent universities to achieve this mission.

It’s a heartening thought really.

For years, faculty, staff and students have discussed how higher education institutions can become more student centric and provide greater value. Today, innovative technologies have made this a possibility. And soon, a reality.

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