A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job; Raise of NanoDegree

A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job; Raise of NanoDegree

AT&T and Udacity, the online education company founded by the Stanford professor and former Google engineering whiz Sebastian Thrun, announced something meant to be very small: the “NanoDegree.”

At first blush, it doesn’t appear like much. For $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the kind of basic programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.

Yet this most basic of efforts may offer more than simply adding an online twist to vocational training. It may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream.

Intriguingly, it suggests that the best route to democratizing higher education may require taking it out of college.

“We are trying to widen the pipeline,” said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman. “This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business.”

Mr. Thrun sounded more ambitious about the ultimate goal: “It is like a university,” he told me, “built by industry.”

American higher education is definitely in need of some disruption. Once the leader in educational attainment, the United States has been overtaken by a growing number of its peers.

Despite the promise of a higher wage, only about half of high school graduates from low-income families enrolled in college in 2012 — compared with 80 percent of high-income graduates. Worse, only a small share of them manage to finish.

According to research by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan, the college graduation rate of Americans from affluent families rose from less than 40 percent for those born in the early 1960s to nearly 55 percent for those born around 1980. For students from the bottom quarter of the income distribution, it inched up to 9 percent from 5 percent.

With tuition rising around the country and states cutting the budgets of their public university systems, many disadvantaged students are left at the mercy of unscrupulous degree mills that promise good jobs on graduation but often discharge young adults with only limited employment prospects and a crushing burden of debt.

Scholars have proposed several strategies to improve the job prospects of disadvantaged students. In a proposal to be released this week by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University urges states to provide incentives to universities to steer students toward higher-wage occupations, including tying college funding formulas to the wages of graduates five years after graduation.

It is easy to oversell technology’s ability to close some of these gaps. When they were introduced a few years ago, the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered by the likes of Udacity, Coursera or edX, the joint venture between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were promoted as the best way to close the opportunity gap.

But putting traditional college courses online may do little to close the gap. Instead, the evidence so far suggests that online education may do better in giving low-income students a leg up if it is directly tied to work. And companies, rather than colleges, may be best suited to shape the curriculum.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, found that most students lost interest in its MOOCs within two weeks and, in general, fewer than 10 percent completed the course.

Moreover, those engaging with online education mostly have not been the young people who might benefit most from the free coursework. “The people who have taken up these opportunities are not the needy of the world,” said Fiona M. Hollands of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “They are not democratizing education. They are making courses widely available, but the wrong crowd is showing up.”

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