The cost of a four-year degree continues to soar, more than doubling in the 21st century alone to reach the current average cost of more than $35,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, students are questioning whether the cost is worth it. A 2021 survey report from Third Way and New America reports that 65% of students think that higher education is no longer worth the cost. And data shared by Michael Itzkowitz of Third Way during Western Governors University’s (WGU) SXSW EDU session showed that many institutions are graduating students with four-year degrees who earn less than the average high school graduate.

In other words, not all education institutions are holding up their end of the bargain.

Fortunately, the post-secondary education ecosystem contains more pathways to opportunity for students than ever before, and higher education leaders at SXSW EDU last week took note of this development, with career and educational pathways taking up considerable space on the conference programing.

Each year increasing options for credentials, micro-programs, upskilling, bootcamps, and certifications, and more become common, most of which are available online with flexible schedules. And the perception of these diverse educational pathways continues to move in a positive direction – an encouraging development for students considering alternative options to four-year degrees.

A forthcoming survey by American Student Assistance (ASA) and Jobs for the Future (JFF) presented at SXSW EDUshows that 81% of employers agree that organizations should hire based on skills rather than degrees. And upwards of 55% of employers are happy to actually hire those who have completed “emerging educational models” that include competency-based education programs, like those offered at WGU, hybrid college programs, or online certification courses.

Although the perception of diverse educational pathways is generally positive, there remains a stigma associated with pursuing non-traditional education pathways. As Jean Eddy of ASA noted at SXSW EDU, “The majority of parents will feel like they failed if their children don’t attend college.”

Moreover, whereas non-traditional education pathways typically offer greater flexibility, especially for working learners, and are nearly always more economically feasible for students, learners often feel that they will miss out on the social experience of a four-year degree program.

So what should the post-secondary future look like? It’s not prudent to throw the baby out with bathwater. Rather, we must design models and systems that get students on the right educational pathway that most appropriately aligns with their goals. We must also focus on building rich learner-centered communities within and across the various pathways so learners don’t miss out on the social aspects that are crucial to learning. Fortunately, there are many emerging solutions to these problems.

Getting Advising Right

The CEO of Lloyd, Dan Gusz said during his pitch at the Chronicle’s Education Shark Tank event at SXSW EDU, “We need to change the status quo of career advisement for students”. Lloyd’s goal is to embed custom career advisement within learning experiences to provide students with long-term support and accountability across their education journey to help them advance their careers – a goal nearly every student wants to attain.

We must also ensure that students choose the right pathway for their career goals. This may not always mean a traditional, four-year degree, however. Good advisement – where learners get all the information they need before pursuing any post-secondary option – begins young. Companies like MajorClarity are helping students “test-drive” career options and then advising on the most prudent path within the education ecosystem to reach those goals.

Career advisement isn’t a one-time offering. It must begin early in secondary education, continue throughout post-secondary education, and also be available for learners long term to ensure continuous professional advancement and lifelong learning.

Building Belonging Among Learners

A core perk of the traditional campus-based college experience is the social experience that students are embedded in. During the pandemic students suffered socially when institutions shut down and moved learning online. In fact, 69% of students at campus-based institutions surveyed within the College Innovation Network at WGU Labs said campus social activities were an important aspect of their college experience. Outside the four-year degree, however, most educational pathways are online.

Building student communities for learners must also be a top priority for innovative educational pathways. Institutions like Rio Salado College, which serves primarily online students seeking non-degrees, has recognized this challenge and is leveraging tech to connect online students. In a SXSW EDU session focused on serving new learner populations, Rio Salado College President Kate Smith shared the results of new research (led by WGU Labs) that showed virtual student communities increased sense of belonging and peer connectedness for online learners.

The Future Educational Ecosystem

As WGU President Scott Pulsipher said in his SXSW EDU session, “If you have a standard model of education that only works well for some, and not for others, then why do we have a standard model?” There is not one right educational pathway for all students. While the benefit of traditional college remains largely true, diverse non-degree pathways and innovative degree offerings can offer significant value to a wide range of learners.

The future of higher education is not a single model, but rather a rich ecosystem that will provide both initial and continuing education for learners with diverse career goals. This ecosystem is unrestricted by the traditional institution, and includes varied kinds of higher education institutions, credentials and certifications, and emerging technology and corporate partnerships that will provide all students with their best pathway to opportunity.