The Future of Higher Ed- Modular Degree Programs

What does the University need to do to stay relevant in its mission: produce, disseminate knowledge and educate the future workforce? Universities and academics will never stop conducting research as it is their primary role and a major source of income. At the same time researchers will continue publishing papers and books as it is the currency for advancement, recruitment, and continuation of research programs. But what about the last part of the mission, to educate the future workforce?

The current structure of bachelor’s level training in the U.S. is to require a certain number of fixed credits/classes to complete the degree. Students have limited ability to individualize their plan of study and the more programs students interact with the less ability students have to pick and choose what they will take. In addition, universities often have required general education requirements in social sciences and humanities that are taught to large groups of students and not targeted to individual programs, this is along with the general math, science and writing requirements. The purpose of these general education courses is to provide all graduates training in the core disciplines; but is there an alternate way universities could accomplish this? Consider also that students entering the university with AP credits can waive these general education courses, how does that fit the goal of general education courses when succeeding on a test in high school can substitute?

The other issue with current bachelor’s degree coursework in the U.S. is the structure of the courses. The major format of instruction is still lecture and the major assessment format is examinations; these are not inherently bad, but how often do individuals in the workforce have to demonstrate their route memorization and recall ability without the aid of technology or notes? Additionally, few courses challenge students to apply their knowledge problem solving or to create something useful. The combination of required general education courses and lack of knowledge application results in graduates not prepared to be productive in today’s workforce or in students dropping out of universities.

To address these challenges, I feel that university’s need to adopt “modular” degree programs that include exploratory introductory level courses, skills or competencies requirements, experiential learning, opportunities for certificates, and most importantly are flexible to fit with the interests of individual students. I believe that introductory courses should be re-conceptualized as exploratory courses where students are exposed to the major opportunities and sub-disciplines within each field. There would be a greater emphasis on the experience gathering rather than memorizing facts, it would be a cross between introductory courses with labs and first year experience programs within the major. Students would leave the course with an are within the major of interest and would have a better idea of how to set up the remainder of their degree program. Required skills and competencies can replace current general educations requirements by having a core set of higher-level learning objectives that are incorporated into major specific courses that students choose to take. This is somewhat like what VT does with its Pathways programs currently. Degree programs should offer certificate programs that are meeting industry accreditation standards or display specific technology or skill competencies. Having these be independent of earning a degree and being stackable (allowing students to earn multiple) would further enhance their usefulness since students could leave the degree program with certificates and still be employable. Degree programs should include mandatory experiential learning programs such as internships, undergraduate research, or service-learning projects to help students translate their course knowledge into real world application. Much of the changes to create modular degree programs could be accomplished by strengthening industry and community college partnerships to lessen the costs of student recruitment and to make their program more attractive. A degree program such as the one I outlined has been piloted by the University System of Georgia in recent years, called the nexus degree but its too early to tell if it has been successful.

Selingo, J.J. (2016). Rebuilding the Bachelor’s Degree. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Rebuilding-the-Bachelor-s/236087

Taylor, M.C. (2009). End of the University as We Know It. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27taylor.html?_r=0&auth=link-dismiss-google1tap

Kafka, A.C. (2019). New 2-Year Degree Promises Gen-Ed Basics and Fast-Track Career Skills. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/New-2-Year-Degree-Promises/247600

Blumenstyk, G. (2019). Why isn’t It a No-Brainer to Embed ‘Certifications’ Intro Bachelor’s Degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved From https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Isn-t-It-a-No-Brainer-to/247648

4 Replies to “The Future of Higher Ed- Modular Degree Programs”

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective on modular degree programs. I know as a school counselor I have worked with students in pursuing certifications from companies such as Google and Microsoft prior to graduating high school. These certification opportunities have provided access to students that may have not otherwise been able to afford them in a higher education setting. I think modular degree programs could provide access to many and facilitate work experience that many undergraduates reported they wish they had before they graduated gollege.

  2. Hi and thank you for your post. The idea of individualizing an education is a great one and can lead to better future employees. I wrote about the same thing in my post. I mentioned how skills like interviewing, work home balance and professional demeanor need to be taught. Your post just added to my understanding of how this could be done. Individualization is a great idea and hopefully will be adapted in the future at Virginia Tech as well as other institutes of higher learning. I think that it would be beneficial to all universities for their students to be better prepared in their own specific career paths. It would also help individual students to find ways to serve their communities which is an item on most of the higher education institutions mission statements. Thanks again for your post really good work.

  3. I am really intrigued by your take on modular degree opportunities. It seems as though this allows for student to really explore their areas of interest before making a confident decision about their degrees.
    The idea of having more certificates available is also something that students could benefit from. This way they can have more specialization in the areas that are interesting to them.
    The Pathways programs that Tech offers seems like a great step in the right direction and I’m happy to see that it’ll continue in the future!

  4. The modular degree opportunities seem very related to the interdisciplinary programs that exist in some graduate studies. I do not know how this is replicated at the undergraduate level but the concept of modular degree seems relevant. The take on the pathways certificate is a way to show relevant knowledge learn while exploring interest seems interesting too.

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