Programs Will Matter in the Future Far More than Colleges

Programs Will Matter in the Future Far More than Colleges

With the workplace demanding that more people go to college¹, one might think that the increased demand will result in an increased number of colleges. Instead, the opposite is likely to happen.

Colleges have been built on their brand names and their particular approaches to education. Research university, liberal-arts college, regional state university – no matter what category colleges fit into, they have marketed their unique approach, their history, or their “fit” to students. But students have moved past that. With the exception of perhaps the 200 most selective colleges in the US, name brand doesn’t matter much anymore². And it will matter even less in the future.

Students are looking less these days for the trappings of the traditional four-year residential college experience, and more at college as a means to an end. The credential and what it can do for them will increasingly be far more valuable than the name of the place that it came from. About 43 percent of college students said in 2016 that they have taken at least one college course online, double the percentage of students who said that just eight years earlier³ Additionally, around 11 percent of college students were earning a degree fully online in 2016, compared to 6 percent in 20124 . Students are looking for an efficient inexpensive way to get what they need to survive in a labor force that is constantly demanding more training, more experience, and more credentials: degrees, certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, and whatever new way employers and entrepreneurs come up with to demonstrate that workers can in fact do what employers want them to do.

Realignment in the US higher education sector

The American postsecondary system has been heading for this kind of realignment and rationalization for a long time. The modern diversified job market demands it. We now have about 840 different occupations with different skill profiles, compared to 270 in 19505 The number of postsecondary programs has quintupled since 1985, from 410 to about 2,2606.

 Students have forever chosen a college, first and foremost, for whether “it has my major.” But why are they choosing a college at all? What they really want and need is a degree in the program they choose. So why not just choose a program and mix and match the many ways it would take to get there: online classes, in-person classes, internships, practicums, apprenticeships.

“Accreditation will change as well. Instead of being built around the accreditation of colleges, the next generation of accreditors will be focused on certifying programs, the courses and means of instructions, and the resulting credentials”

If students were armed with the knowledge of which programs had the best learning and earnings outcomes at the lowest cost, they could make a more informed choice about which one to pursue. Momentum is building toward this eventuality: the Trump administration has added data on earnings and debt for individual programs at specific colleges to the College Scorecard. Never has it been easier to know costs and rewards, and that knowledge, now that it has been unleashed, will only get more widespread. Congress and state legislatures are primed to move toward a system that measures completion with economic value at the program level by connecting degrees and earnings records. This is the best outcome for consumers – this unbundling of programs threatens to break the soaring cost of higher education.

The Coming College Shakeout

In the end, however, this process will result in a punishing shakeout for higher education. Many states built their public higher education systems based on institutional strategies that are now out of date. The State University of New York, for example, began in the 1940s by consolidating 29 unaffiliated colleges under one umbrella. The system is now so comprehensive, with 64 campuses, that almost every resident of the state lives within 30 miles of a SUNY institution7 . Many other states followed similar models, disbursing college campus so that they were within reach of all, or most, residents.

But in this age when consumers can choose to attend hundreds of colleges online without leaving their homes, is that kind of system of physical campuses necessary? More importantly, is it sustainable? States, especially in the next inevitable economic downturn, are going to look seriously at consolidating campuses and sending even more resources to their online operations. Learners are already migrating there – it would be foolish and wasteful for colleges not to follow.

Is this the end of full-time residential undergraduate higher education? Not yet. Some students will continue to want that experience. Certainly the most selective 200 or so colleges in this country will continue to offer it.

At those colleges, the social scene is maybe even more important than the classroom. These colleges increasingly are sustaining and replicating the aristocracy of American wealth and influence. Just getting into one of these colleges is like winning the lottery: a student is likely to use that degree to unlock the doors to the corridors of power, or to meet others who will become a network for achieving success and riches. That is not what higher education is supposed to be for, but the bifurcation of the American system into the super-wealthy and the rest mirrors the pattern that is happening in American society. That, too, is a trend that, without aggressive intervention, I would expect to accelerate between now and 2040.


¹ By 2020, 65% of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education or training. This is 6 percentage points higher than in 2010. Carnevale, Anthony P., Smith, Nicole, and Strohl, Jeff. “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020.” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013.

² About 200 colleges in the United States admit fewer than half of applicants, and are the most desired by applicants. These colleges are labeled “Most Competitive” or “Highly Competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

³ US Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Washington, DC, 2008, 2016

4 US Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Washington, DC, 2012, 2016

5 Wyatt, Ian D., and Hecker, Daniel E. “Occupational changes during the 58 20th Century.” Monthly Labor Review. 129 (2006): 35, and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2015.

6 National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) Resources, 1985-2010

7 State University of New York, “History of SUNY.” history/



Dr. Carnevale is Founder and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He has served as Vice President of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and senior staff in both the US Senate and House of Representatives, and has received appointments in the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations. Dr. Carnevale also served as Director of Political and Government Affairs for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union in the AFL-CIO. Dr. Carnevale co-authored the principal affidavit in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, a US Supreme Court action to remedy unequal education benefits. This landmark case resulted in significant fiscal reforms to equalize K-12 education spending in a majority of states.

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