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Thought Leadership

Degrees of the Future: Are We Prepared for the World of Tomorrow?


Ricard Giner

VP Higher Education, Kaplan International Pathways

It’s often been said that the only constant thing in life is change. This is epitomized in today’s world, where we are experiencing significant technological innovation, shifting demographic changes and more. And the forces impacting the world at large are keenly felt within higher education today, further reflected in student demographics, government funding, and students’ and parents’ expectations about what counts as valuable and useful knowledge. This is particularly relevant for the significant majority of students who go to university to prepare for careers. While higher ed has been evolving to include new kinds of education that are required to prepare for the jobs of the future, is the sector evolving quickly enough?

In fact, many jobs that were once considered part of the future already exist. A generation ago, we didn’t have cloud computing experts, social media marketers, UX designers or sustainability consultants. At the same time, advances in technology are endangering established jobs in a wide range of sectors, including aviation, finance, insurance, manufacturing, and retail, to name just a few. People who work as air traffic controllers, travel agents, miners, bank tellers, and financial advisers are at risk of being replaced by AI, autonomous vehicles, robots, and big data. 

These workforce changes have enormous implications for the future of degrees – not to mention just about every kind of skills development and training initiative. Imagine the possibilities. A future virtual surgeon will need extensive education and training in an emerging discipline combining medicine and robotics. A digital archivist will require a background in data science and computer science. A microbiotech cleaner will be seeking education and training in microbiology, environmental science, and waste management. A robot ethicist will need training in robotics, philosophy and the social sciences. And the list goes on.

This might seem like a daunting readjustment for a higher education sector that hasn’t always been receptive to change. It will certainly take a lot of work. But we should remember that long-term shifts in demand for different kinds of education have already led to significant changes in the number and kind of degrees awarded in the past 50 years. In 1970-1971, more than 1,000 degrees in library science were conferred by U.S. universities. By 2018-2019, the number had dropped just below 100, a ninety-percent reduction. Over the same period, degrees in math rose by just five percent, to 26,126. By contrast, with technological changes shaking the entire world over those years, degrees in computer science rose from 2,388 in 1970-1971 to 86,633 in 2018-2019: an increase of 3,540%. The same trends can be seen across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, where undergraduate degrees are booming in fields such as business, biological sciences, and computer science.

Indeed, research by Kaplan on consumer demand around the world finds that this is to be expected, as future-focused degrees continue to take market share. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the demand for health sciences degrees. Data and computing degrees, in fields from computer science to biometrics to cybersecurity, also remain increasingly popular. Demand for postsecondary education of all kinds continues to grow in China and East Asia.

Is higher education evolving quickly enough for the jobs of the future?

Although universities have not always been nimble in responding quickly with new degree offerings, as consumer desires shift the sector has expanded supply in some innovative ways. Many institutions have created interdisciplinary degrees in subjects like “Public health and data science” and “Data, culture, and society.” Some have pioneered short courses in in-demand fields that students can take alongside their long-term degrees. Others have innovated within their existing degree structure.

Looking ahead, it isn’t hard to predict significant disruption and adaptation on the horizon. Yes, individuals still seek prestige, but they also want usefulness. And corporations increasingly embrace the mission of lifelong learning for their employees, making reskilling and upskilling to gain new skills easier than ever. That contributes to an environment in which the exact shape of degrees may change, with growing possibilities to bundle and stack short-term qualifications over time.

Some observers fret about the risks this new era brings for higher education. Will the sector lose academic depth and coherence? I understand these concerns, but I see them as overblown. Traditional degrees and new credentials can coexist. Many different disciplines will be valuable in the future, but we should accept that technical knowledge itself is precarious and not future-proof: it is inherently obsolete. The challenge, against a backdrop of declining public investment and policymakers focused on near-term results, will be to create innovative credentials that have resilience and flexibility over time. Demand for traditional residential universities will likely give those institutions considerable staying power. But with many more options on the table, we have a real chance to open up opportunities for brand-new generations of learners.

Diverse Motivations Drive Community College Enrollment, but Views on Achievement Are Mixed

A recent Strada study reveals diverse motivations among community college students that fall across three categories: work, personal, and community. Predominant reasons include acquiring work skills (74%) and seeking knowledge (73%), emphasizing career growth and personal development. Goals like boosting income (69%) and family support (69%) are vital, while personal and community development matters to around 60%. 


While most students believe their community college experience helped them meet their education goals overall, personal and community goals outperformed career objectives. Fewer than half of those targeting career advancement or higher earnings viewed their education as successful, while personal and community goals, like developing critical thinking skills and becoming role models, matched educational experiences more closely.

Source: Strada, The Value of Community Colleges: Recent Student Motivations and Outcomes, September 7, 2023

How Apprenticeships Can Build Career Readiness

Kathy Walton shares the benefits of gaining career skills on the job

Kathy Walton headshot

Apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. From 2012 to 2021, the number of new apprentices grew by 64%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But the U.S. still has a long way to go to catch up to the robust apprenticeship participation in many European countries. Kathy Walton, CEO of Kaplan Financial UK, recently spoke with Stuart Pedley Smith about the value of apprenticeships for employers and employees alike.*

Can you define what an apprenticeship is? 

I think it’s important to first talk about what an apprenticeship isn't. It's still the case that when you say apprenticeship, many people think of things like plumbing or hairdressing. But it's important not to pigeonhole apprenticeships. There are so many and they're emerging all the time. Apprenticeships come about because you want to do a particular job and have never done it before, and don’t have the qualifications or work experience for that role. An apprenticeship defines the skills you need for a job and then allows you to work toward those. 

What is the relationship between professional qualifications and apprenticeships? 

Traditionally, when apprenticeships weren’t available, many people got a professional qualification. In certain sectors, if you didn’t have this qualification, you weren’t able to practice a particular job. But the apprenticeship goes further than most of the qualifications do, particularly on the behavioral side. The apprenticeship says, we're not going to test skills under an exam environment; we're going to test them in your work environment. 

What are the benefits to employers of offering apprenticeships? 

One of the advantages of hiring someone who perhaps doesn't have experience is that you can mold that person to think about this role in the context of your organization. They're learning in your environment, and they can become a more skilled employee for you because they've learned using your methodology. Employers tell me that apprentices can be more loyal than your average employee because you are the one who brought them in. We see in our data that apprentices are often more likely to stay at a company than non-apprentices.

*Excerpted from Kaplan’s Learn Better Podcast, August 14, 2023