Honestly I think it still just depends. It depends on a lot of things. It always has, but one huge factor that has changed the game is the internet and the vast amount of information that can be extracted from it. From the internet you have access to purchase any nonfiction book or textbook you want and reviews on those books; online information such as wikis, blogs, and articles; sample syllabi from past university classes; sample course requirements for degree programs; scholarly publications; and even personal access to anyone else who uses the internet.
If I want to learn how to be a health coach or a landscape designer, I can (and have) found all the information I need to study on my own without the pressures of crazy course loads and deadlines, regurgitation tests (really, that’s all tests test), making it to class on time, or getting a shitty teacher. Fortunately, I didn’t sign up for an outrageously expensive degree program at a university with either of those programs. I dipped my toes into the waters and decided they weren’t for me and, wait for it, just decided to stop studying it! I was even able to return a giant textbook to Amazon that I had barely used. I had wasted almost no money when deciding that those career paths were indeed not what I wanted after learning a little bit.
Some people need that pressure of money and deadlines or they simply won’t get it done. That’s a lot of money to spend simply as a substitute for controlling yourself, but it’s an option. Some people want the experience of complete immersion living at a university. Some careers can’t really be trusted to self-study yet perhaps. The medical profession comes to mind as an obvious one. Graduate degrees that involve research and lab work are a great use of colleges. Technical schools are probably still going to be helpful for a long time, although maybe we can just bring back the apprenticeship. Undergraduate degrees in philosophy or liberal arts? I don’t know, I feel like there is enough study material out there for you to study for the rest of your life. Heaven knows the degree isn’t going to do much for you anyway, unless you feed back into the system and become a professor of the same area for the next generation of students who could have found learning material on their own for a lot cheaper than $80,000. (Cue the angry comments.)
If you do want to teach higher education, and undergraduate programs do fall by the wayside, there will be lots of options, just in different ways. You can mentor locally or mentor online. Nano degrees are becoming quite the thing now. You can start your own business creating curricula to sell that will guide self-learners through their journey. The internet makes lots of things new and shiny. For now.
But how will businesses know if a candidate is worthy without the degree? Well, are all candidates with a degree worthy? Are most candidates with a degree worthy? Actually, a lot of them cheated their way through school. And actually, that degree program might have taught completely contradictory lessons to your organization’s practices. I think the best way to determine if a candidate has the skills needed for the job is to ask them questions or test them out in some way. I think that would be a lot more accurate than depending on the fact that someone graduated from a college to ensure that the candidate knows anything about anything.
I think IT professionals are one of the best examples of this. IT professionals often do not have degrees. Some of them do, and some of them don’t. Many IT professionals I know did poorly in traditional school environments. However, they were very smart in this new and outrageously quickly growing field, so mostly employers didn’t have the ability to require a degree from them. It was simply the knowledge and skills that mattered. “So, can you do this and this and this? Show me a little bit. Okay, you have the knowledge we need, please work for us and help us. I’ll pay you butt-loads of money if you can do all this wizardry.” This is how it will eventually be for most professions I think. Minus the butt-loads of money. (Sorry.)
I just find it so ironic that as all the information in the world becomes more freely accessible, college is, at the same time, becoming more outrageously expensive. College enrollment rates are dropping. Is that because of the cost? Or is it the realization that the cost is not necessary?
Either way, if you’re in high school making a decision whether to go to college, my advice is to wait. Learn a little more about life and yourself first. Learn more about your fields of interest before committing to 40 years of student loan debt on that field. I know you want to get going with life, but trust me, life isn’t any better on the other side of college. You just move on to the grind. And in many cases, you can skip the debt and move straight to the grind. And then, when you’re in your 30’s and wanting to change career paths, you don’t have to feel so guilty about all those years and dollars you spent on college in a field that you now hate. (Don’t worry, almost all of us do it, you’re normal.)