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The Big Question: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

Romesh Ratnesar
·10 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Romesh Ratnesar: You’re the president of National University, a non-profit private university based in San Diego with a student population of 25,000, many of them working adults. One question that a lot of students, families and workers have is whether a college degree is still worth it. How do we evaluate value in higher education? In your view, is a traditional college degree still worth the investment?

David Andrews: It really depends on the degree, the discipline and the institution itself. A highly-ranked degree from a highly-ranked institution probably has the right kind of return on the investment. But a degree from a lesser known institution in a discipline that historically has not led to a better job — I think we have to start questioning the value. Students should be wise consumers and institutions should be more sensitive to the return on the investment for the students that they recruit.

One of the things that people don’t really pay enough attention to is the role of selectivity in the value of a degree. The more selective a school is, the better you can assure a return on that investment because you get to pick your team — you pick people that have demonstrated a capacity to take advantage of their degree once they enter the workforce. In open-access institutions like mine, we end up with such heterogeneous students. Our student body is all over the place in terms of its racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds, military history. The majority of our students are under-represented minorities. Some come to us with as many as 100 credit hours earned from three to five other institutions. If we don’t think about each of those students as an individual and work to give them a personalized education to get the highest return on investment, then we’re not really doing our job.

RR: Given the pandemic and the downturn in the labor market, is there more pressure on an institution like yours to deliver that return on investment? Are your hearing students say they want to see more evidence that they’re going to get something out of this?

DA: We’re hearing it not just from students but employers. They’re saying, can you deliver students or graduates with the right type of skills for the positions that we have open? Because there’s a mismatch between the number of people that are graduating and the kind of positions that we need to fill. If we’re not flexible enough to build and promote programs in areas where there’s a shortage of people with that credential, then we’ll miss the opportunity for your students.

The other side is, is college worth it based on the overall cost of the tuition? We’ve committed to a 25% reduction in tuition during the pandemic. We offered free classes for the first four months of the pandemic to students who were adversely affected in their home institutions by the cancellation of courses. For our own students, we put in place a number of new scholarships that allow us to reduce the impact of tuition. That includes incentive-based scholarships — the more you consume in terms of coursework, or the better progress you’re making toward your degree, the cheaper it gets. So for every three courses you accumulate in a one-month format, you get a fourth course for free. These are working adults who often have a job, who have two kids, three kids, many times taking care of elderly parents. Now with the pandemic, they’re at home doing their job with two or three kids trying to have access to a computer in a private space. It’s a real challenge. And if we don’t help them adapt, then it’s probably not worth their commitment of time, energy and the tuition that’s necessary to get over the finish line.

RR: The college student population is older than what we think of as typical undergraduates. The average age of your student body is 33. Does the current system work for adult learners, who are often working and have responsibilities outside of school?

DA: The way the current system works, we’re more concerned about how much time you spent trying to learn something than actually documenting what you’ve learned. But working adults don’t have the luxury of fixed timeframes to commit to learning.

We need competency-based micro-credentials so that there’s more proximal value to the workforce. Some of our students take 10 years to graduate, because they’re working or serving in the military. They’re taking courses when they can, they’re accumulating courses every year. And at the end of that they might be the first student from their family to graduate from college and so they’re incredibly proud of that accomplishment. But they have to wait eight to 10 years to realize any value from the accumulation of those courses. As we work with industry, we’re finding ways for us to do micro-credentials that are stackable towards a degree — but which may help you in your current position, or a future position that you aspire to, and which you can actually take advantage of earlier than just waiting to get a degree. A lot of change will happen when there’s improved movement towards competency-based hiring. If industry starts to hire based on evidence of your micro-credentials, it’s going to be a major disrupter to the educational space.

RR: What’s the barrier for industry to move toward recognizing and hiring based on these alternatives to traditional degrees? Is it that there aren’t great tools for assessing the merits or the value of a given credential?

DA: We’ve got to have much more conversation and agreement on the assessments. We have a lot of confidence in fixed timeframes, because we’ve done it for so long. You know, if you spent a certain amount of time trying to learn something, and you actually got a passing grade, we’ve all kind of agreed over the years that we can live with that. But we’re in new space now where we’re trying to break it down to a more modular view of credentials, and it puts more pressure on the assessments.

I think we’re moving away from a period of time where we told students, you should come to our university because we have all of the knowledge, we have the content in our professors’ heads and in books and in libraries. The idea was you had to go to university because that’s how you got access to content. But we can’t do that anymore, because content is free and ubiquitous. Now, what we’re trading on is the credential and the value of that credential itself — which makes us have to dig deeper into backing it up with evidence. If we’re going to use something other than degrees, or in addition to degrees, how much confidence can we build in that? And that’s where I think there’s a hold up in terms of workforce hiring. We haven’t gotten to the point where there’s so much confidence [among employers] in the delivery system.

RR: You’ve been an educator since you were in high school and previously served as the dean of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. What made you decide to devote your life not just to teaching but studying education as a discipline?

DA: I’ve always had a passionate concern for children and their education. And then it grew into a better understanding of lifelong learners. I went into psychology and developmental psychology because I was interested in the developmental side of psychology. And I’ve always just been fascinated with the question of, how do we make education available, in its highest form, to the hardest to reach populations?

RR: There are big differences in the populations served by an elite, traditional school like Johns Hopkins and an institution like National University. What are some of the similarities?

DA: Part of the work we were doing in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins was focused on hard-to-reach populations in East Baltimore. And the realization we had was that a one-size-fits-all approach to learning is not going to get it done. You have to personalize it. I was totally unfamiliar with National University when I interviewed for the position, but it looked like an incredible opportunity because of the heterogeneity of the student body and because it’s a pretty gritty, open access institution. It’s one of the few places where I think we can make these transformations in the educational model to provide a much more personalized and precision-based approach. The traditional institutions are going to be really, really hard to change in this respect. But there are institutions like National University and Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University who are focused on these incredibly diverse populations and that have a will and an appetite to do this.

I keep going back to the question of what’s the primary purpose of education — whether it’s a university or a K-12 school. It should be to serve the students, not to sort the students. I constantly focus on how we’re serving students in terms of their specific goals.

RR: Since the start of the pandemic there have been a lot of discussion about the future of higher ed, and whether we’re going to see major disruptions in the business models of colleges in the U.S. Do you think this is a real inflection point?

DA: You’re going to see the possibility of some substantial changes and disruptions among smaller colleges with less brand name associated with them. Among large institutions that are predominantly online, the competition is going to change, so there will be disruption in that sector. It’s going to take a long time for the traditionals to change because, again, their brand is built upon that reputation of selectivity. There’s still this tendency to want to belong to the country club that won’t let you in and you can’t afford. And is there still an envy of that among a certain population. But that’s not the majority of college students. College-going students now are trying for a workforce-relevant leg up. If there’s a sea change, as some are predicting, in competency-based hiring, I think we’re gonna see some pretty disruptive things happening in that space. If people start to hire based upon credentials other than a degree, then you’ll see a mad scramble to align to those hiring practices.

RR: So what’s the bottom line? What can colleges need to do to help students derive more value from their educations?

DA: We have to get out of our silos so it’s not just a handoff at the end of the degree. That means we have to start aligning these curricular conversations early in the process, and work together with employers to serve students and build the pipeline for those students to get better jobs, or to advance within the within the companies that they’re already in. Universities have to change their mindset: They have to co-create and co-own a curriculum with those in [industry]. Otherwise, employers will create their own. The relevance of the university is going to diminish, especially in this sector that’s focusing on workforce preparation, if we're not in lockstep agreement about what these credentials look like.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”

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