You Don’t Need College Anymore, Says Google

If you can earn $93k after taking a $300 course, then what’s the future of higher education?

David Leibowitz
Jul 29 · 7 min read
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(Source: Pixabay)

This week, Google announced new professional career certificates that can be completed in six months to help Americans obtain high growth job opportunities. They also signaled to jobseekers that they would treat these certificates, which require no prior experience of undergraduate credentials, as the equivalent of four-year degrees by their hiring managers.

For the beleaguered education sector which was already experiencing dwindling enrollment, a sluggish pace in curriculum development, lack of distance learning adoption, and high costs, the move by Google and employers may be the harbinger of digital disruption that is long overdue.

Google‘s new certification programs

On July 14th, Google launched new professional certification programs in data analysis, project management, and UX design, to be hosted on Coursera. Though the platform charges a monthly $49 fee, Google will provide 100,000 needs-based scholarships to cover costs and will be awarding over $10 million in grants to certain non-profits that partner with workforce development to women, veterans, and underrepresented Americans.

“In our own hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.” — Google

Google lists the median annual wage of each career track with a high of $93,000 for the project management program. According to Google, 80% of learners that complete the IT Support Specialist certification either landed a new job or earned a raise. Prior experience and higher education are not required as a prerequisite for the courses. And, once completed, typically in three-to-six months, participants may have a crack at a job with the tech giant.

Kent Walker, Google senior vice president of corporate affairs announced via Twitter, that “in our own hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.”

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Tweet from Kent Walker, senior vice president Google, July 13th 2020 (Source: author screengrab)

Two weeks before the Google announcement, Microsoft launched a global initiative to uplift the professional skills of 25 million people per a blog post on June 30th. The target ambitions in light of the pandemic are strikingly similar to Google in supporting “genuinely inclusive recovery [with] programs to provide easier access to digital skills for people hardest hit by job losses, including those with lower incomes, women, and underrepresented minorities.”

The company will combine resources from LinkedIn, GitHub, and Microsoft to provide Microsoft Certifications along with $20 million in cash grants to help non-profit organizations. Twenty-five percent of that will be provided in cash grants to community-based non-profit organizations that are led by and serve communities of color in the United States. LinkedIn learning paths will be available for multiple roles through March 2021 (Software Developer, Sales Representative, IT Administrator, Data Analyst, Financial Analyst, Graphic Designer, and Project Manager).

Online delivery isn’t the only answer, it’s the content too

Coursera raised another $130 million in funding this week and is now valued at $2.5 billion, as reported in Forbes. The Coursera service offers 4,500 MOOC courses with 160 university partners. The Harvard Business Review, in a piece co-authored by the CEO of Coursera, signals that Higher Ed Needs a Long-Term Plan for Virtual Learning. Undoubtedly, hardware, software, connectivity, and digital course catalog production are required by advanced institutions to succeed in education delivery for the new age.

To be blunt, university degrees are only as valuable as the weight applied by company hiring managers, and Google has just signaled that a $300 certificate has parity with a diploma.

But technology alone is not the salve. By focusing on the tools or pedagogy, the authors miss the workforce relevance of the course content. Higher education has had a challenge adapting curriculum with speed and agility to meet the needs of students and employers.

According to Microsoft’s calculations, global unemployment in 2020 may reach a quarter of a billion people due to automation and pandemic-related disruption. However, they further estimate 149 million new technology-related jobs within the next five years with a majority in software development, data analysis, cybersecurity, and privacy protection.

Coursera’s own growth metrics appear to be evidence that employers can wait no longer for skilled labor. Indeed, Coursera’s enterprise business accounts for twenty-five percent of their revenue with continuing education courses for 2,500 companies and has grown 70% year over year.

College admissions have been on a downward spiral

Though college enrollment was projected to be down as much as 20% for colleges this fall, they had been on the downward trend pre-pandemic. Harvard is facing a $415 million revenue drop this year and anticipates another $715 million for the next academic year, as reported in Bloomberg.

At the end of last year, total US enrollments were already below 18 million, representing a decline of over 2 million from its peak in 2011, according to the Fall 2019 Current Term Enrollment Estimates report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Over the past eight years, nationwide enrollment has fallen about 11% across every sector: public state schools, community colleges, and private schools.

A survey in April by high-ed research firm SimpsonScarborough, as reported by Business Insider, found that 10% of high school seniors would not be attending a four-year institution. Peeling back the detail revealed an additional disparity: 41% of minority high school students said they likely wouldn’t attend college in the fall, or it’s “too soon to tell,” as compared to 24% of white high school seniors who responded similarly.

Google hopes that low-cost certification programs that can be completed at a cost of $300 may be a solution to unequal access to education in certain fields. “While college degrees have tons of value, they are not accessible to everyone,” said Google vice president, Lisa Gevelber. According to a CNBC report, Google says that 58% of those who take its IT certificate identify as Black, Latino, female, or as a veteran and that 45% of enrollees make less than $30,000 per year.

Microsoft sees the problem as two-fold: a lack of training equity and opportunity for underrepresented populations, and the decline in employer investments in training over the past 20 years. According to Microsoft, on-the-job training is more than two times as prevalent among workers who are already in higher-skilled roles, leaving those in more automatable positions even more vulnerable to displacement.

Disrupt higher education — if not now, when?

Microsoft’s initiative goes a step beyond academic courseware. Their program includes free, real-time labor market data and skills insights to help governments, policymakers, and business leaders understand what’s happening in their local labor markets: what companies are hiring, the top jobs companies are hiring for, and the trending skills for those jobs.

It’s time for Hi-Ed to address the imperative to digitally transform and better prepare students for workforce readiness and the future labor market

One of the issues with traditional institutional curriculum is that by the time the degree has been granted, the market may have already changed. A sluggish pace to develop a curriculum may not be appropriately preparing students for the needs of employers. Do students still need to spend four years in class (either physically or virtually) only to find that the technology and market have changed once their degree has been earned?

The challenge is that “academics are notoriously slow to change,” as argued by Dawn Lerman of Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in Times Higher Education. In her piece “Could the coronavirus force positive change in higher education? “she notes the imperative for universities to institutionalize the culture to respond swiftly to the demands of the digital era and asks if not now, then when? Indeed, without disruption, higher education is under existential threat, and many may begin to question if a four-year degree is required.

In the tech industry, there are several high-profile examples of leaders who dropped out and still achieved notable success: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg. Beyond tech, there’s Oprah, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Ralph Lauren, and Wolfgang Puck. Puck quit school at the age of fourteen to become a cooking apprentice at a hotel.

Though these are extreme examples of extraordinarily successful leaders across industries, the lack of a university degree may no longer be the hurdle to skilled positions with economic opportunity. In Google’s report of their IT certification course, 61% did not have a four-year degree, typically complete the program in under six months, and earn a median annual wage of $54,760.

To be blunt, university degrees are only as valuable as the weight applied by company hiring managers, and Google has just signaled that a $300 certificate has parity with a diploma.

Non-technical industries are getting the message too. The National Retail Federation (NRF) just launched a virtual education program with denim companies American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, and Levi Strauss aimed at young retail industry hopefuls. The eight-week program, called RISE, allows attendees to learn directly from the retail giants via recorded sessions, which will provide “professional development opportunities.”

As all other industries are undergoing digital disruption and reinvention, from retail to healthcare — perhaps it’s time for higher education to address the imperative to digitally transform and better prepare students for workforce readiness and the future labor market.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the notion of a four-year degree and how higher education can partner with industry associations and the tech giants to digitally disrupt while providing expanded access to communities — at the same time ensuring their own survival.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

David Leibowitz

Written by

Breaker of treadmills. Contributions in XBOX Mag, Forbes, CNN, OneZero & industry rags. @ retail, CPG, health/wellness, education, culture & tech.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

David Leibowitz

Written by

Breaker of treadmills. Contributions in XBOX Mag, Forbes, CNN, OneZero & industry rags. @ retail, CPG, health/wellness, education, culture & tech.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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