Austin Community College



Nanodegrees: The Shift Away from Higher Education

Many colleges and universities are seeing a dramatic drop in enrollment in many degree and continuing education programs. With many corporations dropping tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit, there are less corporate employees pursuing continuing education in the form of a traditional degree program and more enrolling in internal “micro degree” (nanodegree) offerings. Some large international banks, and other organizations, have moved beyond tuition reimbursement to get their employees educated on the latest issues and techniques.

Are we seeing a fundamental shift to pursuing internal corporate “continuing education” versus traditional higher education?

The short answer is “yes.” It is a matter of wanting more “bang for the buck” and in many cases, faster results which can be rapidly applied on subjects that are new, constantly changing and/or constantly evolving. These include technical subjects as well as industry-related subjects.

For many companies involved in developing and applying digital skills, big data analytics, blockchain, cloud computing, and other small, team-based technology skills, there are internal continuing education programs being launched which are focused on training and developing skills from within. These certificate programs are being suggested and contemplated as internal continuing education. One of the reasons? Most universities do not offer a comprehensive course in it, let alone a full program or a certificate.

A growing number of companies have decided on this internal approach, instead of relying on outside “traditional” universities and their curriculum, especially ones still trying to sell 20th-century solutions to solve 21st-century challenges.

Many at universities are clinging to the past, instead of jumping into the future when it comes to new course offerings and covering state-of-the-art concepts. It is difficult to get some universities to offer new courses and certificate programs focused on new concepts. They think there is a risk in offering a new course or certificate when in reality, the risk is when old courses and curriculum do not get replaced and/or updated.

Many universities and their faculties are lagging behind and yet charging even more money for out-of-date courses and curriculum that has not been changed in years, if not decades. Potential students are starting to weigh the costs of a degree, to loan repayment programs as well as their future earning potential. Is laying out $150,000 to $230,000 for a degree a good idea today?

Fact-based eduction? Skill sets

While developing new courses for tech-related subjects two decades ago at a major university, my objective was to focus on FACT-based education where Flexibility, Adaptability, Creativity, and Technology skills were the skill sets needed to be successful in today’s and tomorrow’s jobs. I identified these four areas as being critical for jobs in the 21st century. They still are but need to be incorporated with latest industry frameworks and concepts into a faster turnaround certificate or nanodegree.

Colleges and universities not seeing this fundamental shift might as well keep teaching blacksmithing and other horse-and-buggy era courses, as they wonder why enrollments continue to diminish.

These new internal nanodegree and certificate programs can be tailored more specifically for company needs and can be rolled out quickly for many people. Internal education programs are a real investment in an employee and some organizations are seeing value in this approach. There is a more cost-effective solution in this approach and the focus is on pragmatic information, multicultural team-building, small team dynamics, rather than on whimsical theory.

Companies are seeing success in this digital era where people need to be educated differently and quickly as the dynamics of digitalization add acceleration to organizational change across all industries.

Internal programs to teach many people are becoming more cost-effective and in an example of bringing people “up-to-speed” the internal program was viewed as a bargain at $500 per person compared to one 3-hour university course that may cost $3,000 or more.

Millennials or those just graduating high school looking at university programs may want to look beyond college and think about what companies offer their employees a comprehensive learning package that culminates in a certificate or nanodegree program critical to the company, its industry, and maybe its competitors. That nanodegree program may be a better investment.

Can microdegrees replace four-year degrees?

Depending on what skill sets we are looking for, the answer is “yes.” As I have said in past articles, we have moved into an era of the workplace where the need for team building and team dynamics have accelerated over the years in all industries. Small team concepts and team dynamics need to be instilled in organizations with pragmatic projects focused on applying new methodologies.

Looking at the future of education across many industries, I believe we are going to see a shift from four-year degrees and master’s degrees to more internal organizational courses, certificates, and micro degrees administered within the organization.

When you learn more, you earn more.