How Important Is University Education To Freelancing Success?
A new report from Standard & Poor’s sends a clear message: demand for U.S. university education dropped sharply in the academic year that is now ending. Here are the overall stats:
What’s going on?
Well, first is the rising cost of university education. According to the College board, university costs have risen at an alarming rate. College Board’s “Trends in College Pricing 2017” report examines changes in tuition rates over time. The report found that for the most competitive private colleges and universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT, members of the class of 2024 will pay more than double the tuition and expenses expected of students less than two decades ago. Among public universities, the cost has frequently tripled.
Loss of International Students
A second factor is the loss of international students, the result of political worries, immigration restrictions on students, and concerns by those students eager to continue to live and work in the US after graduation. A recent NPR article points out the significant drop in international undergraduates and graduate students this way:
“The U.S. has historically been a top destination for international students. At last count there were more than a million. They’re attracted by the high-tech facilities and opportunities for research; the easy, nonhierarchical interaction between faculty and students; and the open, social environment on campuses.
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“But this year, in a survey of more than 700 colleges and universities, the Institute of International Education found total international enrollment plummeted 16% between fall of 2019 and fall of 2020. Statistics on new international students was even grimmer — a 43% drop. Tens of thousands have deferred enrollment.”
Why? Covid-19 closed borders certainly had an impact. So did politics, the fear that the US was becoming more internally focused and nativistic. Cost was also a factor; international students tend to pay higher tuition costs.
There are also more notable impacts of the drop in international students. Two in particular are mentioned in the NPR report:
“A Duke University study found that domestic students who engaged with international students enhanced their self-confidence, leadership and quantitative skills. U.S. undergrads were also more likely to ‘appreciate art [and] literature,’ ‘place current problems in historical perspective’ and ‘read or speak a foreign language.’
“About half of international students come to the U.S. to study in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. A 2017 analysis found that foreign nationals, for example, make up 81% of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 79% in computer science and 59% in civil engineering.”
Less Relevant Education
But the real question is whether a university education and degree continues to be essential to the success of freelancers. At least one expert thinks that it may not be necessarily so, or at least less important than it was. In an article for CNBC, Stephane Kasriel, then CEO of Upwork, makes the case that the future of work won’t be about college degrees, it will be about job skills.
Kasriel cites the 2018 survey Freelancing in America, only 79% of freelancers with a four-year college degree say their college education was useful to the work they do now, while 93% pointed to their technical and professional skills as essential to their success.
Kasriel also points out that, too often, university curricula are not current in addressing the educational and skill requirements individuals will need to succeed in the foreseeable future. No one can know the future, but areas of technological innovation certainly point to foreseeable educational and skill needs. Nevertheless, we know from work by Cognizant and others that universities are not preparing students for a majority of the new skills and roles that will be needed.
A World Economic Forum report recently weighed in, noting that “in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist ten or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.”
And Upwork data confirms that acceleration. Its latest Upwork Quarterly Skills Index, released in July, found that “70% of the fastest-growing skills are new to the index.”
Kasriel’s point: “Rapid technological change, combined with rising education costs, have made our traditional higher-education system an increasingly anachronistic and risky path. The cost of a college education is so high now that we have reached a tipping point at which the debt incurred often isn’t outweighed by future earnings potential. Yet too often, degrees are still thought of as lifelong stamps of professional competency. They tend to create a false sense of security, perpetuating the illusion that work — and the knowledge it requires — is static. It’s not.”
The future of work won’t be about degrees but, instead, is about skills. And no one school, whether Harvard, General Assembly or Udacity, can fully insulate us from the unpredictability of technological progression and disruption.
Freelancers understand that education doesn’t and can’t stop. Particularly in fast changing tech areas – AI, Robotics, Machine Learning – the half-life of innovation is breathtakingly brief. Freelancers recognize that they need to be up to date, and that it’s a life-long process. They are nearly twice as likely to re-skill.
As a result, nontraditional education options are growing. Jolt, a co-learning startup offers a NAMBA, “not your average MBA.” Online apps like Coursera, General Assembly, Udacity, Degreed and Udemy provide both access to university curricula and unique educational events on demand.
University isn’t going away. But many colleges and universities likely will. Here in the US, there are 5,300 universities and colleges according to recent stats. Michael Horn, in a Forbes article, predicts that many will close in the next decade. He writes:
“Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen consistently turns heads in higher education by predicting that 50% of colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade. Christensen and I made a more measured prediction with more nuance in the New York Times in 2013: “a host of struggling colleges and universities—the bottom 25% of every tier, we predict—will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.”
One thing is certain: successful freelancers have a future-proof mindset. So, whether they’ve been to university or not, freelancers know they have to keep learning and improving to get that next project.