Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that graduate students account for 40 percent of college loan borrowing. According to the piece, grad programs can result in between $50,000 and $60,000 in loans — a bill often handed off to the federal government through loan forgiveness programs.
For many, this brings up questions of the government’s involvement in student financing and whether the skills and credentials cultivated during a master’s program are worth the cost.
Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, talked to Chief Learning Officer about how graduate degrees’ questionable future affects learning leaders. Edited excerpts follow.
In today’s world, is a master’s degree worth the time, effort and money?
It’s still often worth it, but it’s starting to change in certain industries, particularly in technology. Employers like Google care much more about underlying skill sets and what you’re able to do than the degree or where you graduated. We’re starting to see the beginnings of the shift, that people are saying there are new ways to educate. A master’s degree might not be the signal it once was of the skills and knowledge an employee has.
Why are we seeing this shift in technology?
For a midlevel engineer at AT&T, their skill sets are out of date every three years at this point, and that’s probably accelerating. To take that much time off to do a master’s degree when you could take a course or module online, people are questioning that tradeoff. Also, technology skills are very objective.
It was a natural place for it to start, but I think we’ll start to see that spread into other industries as we get clearer about the skills we hope employees have. It’s not too hard to imagine financial services will be next, and then moving down the line from there.
[Graduate degrees] are still important in teaching or nursing. In teaching especially, your pay is actually tied to getting a master’s — there it pays off. But increasingly people will ask the question, is this the best way to get those knowledge and skills, or is there a faster way?
What do you see CLOs doing to replace graduate degrees?
There’s a real tool kit learning leaders can use, from Lynda.com and Udacity to more formal online competency-based programs. There are platforms where they can make tailor-made programs and mix and match programs that are already created. The ability of learning software to adapt to learners’ needs in real time is another thing that plays into this — it feels more possible today than 10 to 15 years ago.
How will this shift affect learning leaders who are concerned with the talent they bring in as well as what skills they need to develop?
It’s unsettling, but it’s a huge opportunity for CLOs to play a much bigger, strategic role. You can now get much more exact about the skills and knowledge you want, and matching competency-based programs to those skills, clearly verifying whether employees have met those in much more concrete ways, will drive much more precise value to organizations over time.
What advice do you have for learning leaders who only see this as a disruption?
The first thing is to step back: How do we figure out the skills and knowledge we actually need employees to have? Start with the learning goals. How do we measure how this impacts our key performance indicators, and then say now that we understand what our goals are, what’s the best way to get there?
Changing the framing of the question from the standard “We need a master’s degree because two years of school is really important,” will allow them to see all the opportunities possible in this world that is emerging.
To dig deeper into the debate over masters degrees, check out our October feature.