Are Four-Year Degrees Dead? It’s a Theory

As long as colleges keep issuing diplomas, the research suggests they aren’t going anywhere—regardless of how much they teach us.

There has been a lot of talk about how COVID-19 will kill higher education and that four-year degrees are “dead.” If this is true, it would have big implications for those of us in Learning and Development (L&D). I suggest that while higher education will be under a fair amount of financial pressure and increased scrutiny in terms of quality, that most “experts” are making what we call in economics a “specification error,” and it has to do with the most practical thing in the world to use as Learning leaders: theory.

Yes, theory! I know we have all heard it—that practitioners need “real-world” solutions and not theories. This sentiment is just fundamentally incorrect and quite frankly, dangerous. Let me explain in general terms and relate why folks may be wrong about higher education’s demise and, of course, why as a Learning leader, you should care.

Theories Are Lenses

A theory is a tool that allows us to understand and predict behavior. It isn’t abstract and it isn’t gospel. Take physics. There are three competing theories of gravity. None is “true,” and each has a lot of evidence to say it does a good job of predicting how gravity works. Einstein did a good job explaining how large things such as suns and galaxies behave but falls apart when looking at very small things such as atoms. Quantum mechanics does a great job explaining how atoms will react to gravity but falls apart when looking at large scale things such as stars and galaxies. And, of course, Newton—while not working at either extreme—does fine for you and me to help us predict what will happen if say, we drop a plate. It would be folly to build a nuclear engine, a bridge, or a rocket ship without knowing which theory to apply.

Using another analogy from physics, think of theories as lenses. When we want to look at something, we use the correct lens, depending on the size and distance of what we want to observe. The important thing for the observer is to have good quality lens and to know which combination of lenses to use in which context. Theories are like lenses; they are useful tools that bring certain things into focus. As practitioners, we need to be fluent in our theories and know which ones to use when because in the same way engineers use physics, learning theories guide on what to do in which situation.

Theories and College Degrees

So what does this have to do with the death of the college degree? Well, there are two competing theories for why people go to college; both have evidence to suggest they explain behavior. As learning engineers, we need to understand both and know which one to use when.

Back to what the experts are doing: They are confusing theories. Getting people skilled and getting them credentialed are two different reasons people go to college, and each has a theory with evidence to explain the behavior. Politicians consistently have focused on getting more people with degrees as a way of getting them out of poverty; this is a theory called credentialing. On the other hand, as L&D professionals, we are all enamored of human capital theory. These are two distinct ideas that aren’t as related as you’d think, and getting clear on which one you are using is just like picking the right lens.

Human capital theory argues that if we invest in building people’s skills, they will be more productive. This is why L&D exists, correct? Basically human capital theory tells us to figure out gaps and build programs to fill those gaps. People will learn the skills and be more productive.  In this model, it is all about what we learn. 

The competing theory, credentialing (sometimes called signaling theory), argues that in inefficient markets, what matters is one’s credentials, not what you learn. My students are always skeptical of credentialing as a different theory because it is so much less inspiring than human capital. So I invite them to drop out of their doctoral program once they defend but before they graduate. After all, they’ve learned all they could, so what does it matter? Not surprisingly, I have yet to have a taker. Research shows us that each theory has lots of empirical evidence to back it and each explains about a third of the variance when it comes to why college matters. This means that in general, learning matters in college but so does that piece of paper—each in about equal measure.

So What Does This Have to Do with Us?

First, recognize that you have both needs in your organization. On one end of the spectrum is probably something like sales training, which is purely about the skills. On the other end is compliance, where documentation is sacrosanct. 

Second, a theory tells us how to build and what to measure. So if I am worried about credentialing, I need evidence that demonstrates completion, whereas if I am worried about sales, I am more interested in evidence of learning. 

And these approaches go beyond what to measure. They also speak to design. When learning is paramount, we expend a lot of energy to ensure mastery, but when credentialing is paramount, there is much more emphasis on efficiency (getting them through); documentation (did they go through it?); and perhaps (if we are kind), engagement to make the process as painless as possible.

One type of program that is something of a paradox are high-potential and other leader development programs. Is their purpose to build skills or to send signals to the organization and the team about the individual? This won’t make some in L&D happy, but there is at least some evidence to suggest that high-potential programs are as much about anointing the next generation of leaders—sending them out to go through some rite of passage to emerge a “leader”—than it is about building any distinct set of skills. What can L&D do then?

The best approach to all of this is to think. Know your purpose (and be honest about it) and design the program and the evaluation accordingly. If you believe that more than one theory is at play, the best way to not mix up the parts and create a Frankenstein is to focus (think of those lenses) and design each part purely and then combine them. In this way, you’ll build the skills that matter and send the signals that matter. You may create positive or negative interaction effects, but you’re much less likely to create muddy, mediocre programs where little learning occurs and the signals are muted.

If you want to be nerdy and you are really curious, you can even design experiments  around this. Divide your group into four sets. Give one just the credentialing part, one the human capital approach, one both, and one group nothing and compare things such as learning, performance, and engagement. 

Oh, and the death of college? As long as they keep issuing diplomas, the research suggests they aren’t going anywhere—regardless of how much they teach us.

Doug Lynch is faculty at USC. He created the PennCLO Doctoral Program.

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