Join Us!
Fuckup Stories

Is higher education still relevant?

In our digital age, information is as omnipresent as air, and skills are becoming as vital as knowledge. Where does a college degree fit in here?

Raquel Rojas
Is higher education still relevant?

The paradox of higher education as an institution is that it can be an avenue for upward mobility and personal development, but we must also face the bleak reality of its contribution to reinforcing societal inequalities. In the rush to democratize education and expand curriculums, intersectionality hasn’t taken the central relevance it should have.

University education has also come under scrutiny as it seems to be increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market. It's like making a sandwich with everything you've got in the fridge; it may feel satisfying but it may not necessarily be tasty or nutritious. So what are the alternatives to higher education, and what can universities do to serve society's needs? Let's find out!

A brief overview of the evolution of university studies

Oh, the grand old universities! Their long histories are peppered with the rise and fall of many areas of study, big-brain pioneers, and the endless pursuit of knowledge. Once upon a time, going to university was the guarantee of a secure high-paying job, a golden ticket to prosperity. You'd specialize in a knowledge area, fill your grey matter with facts and theories, and voila! Life is set, or so it seemed. But hold your horses, because university studies have been evolving, and not always in ways that feel reassuring.

In the old days, the system was simple: the sciences, arts, and humanities held sway. You’d have your Newtons exploring gravity while your Shakespeares were penning plays. Scholars dedicated their lives to understanding a chosen field and then passed on that knowledge to their students, who, in turn, applied it in their professions. But the world we live in now is not quite as accommodating to this tradition. In our digital age, information is as omnipresent as air, and skills are becoming as vital as knowledge.

The job market has shifted from concrete, specialized roles to a more fluid, multi-skilled environment. Today, a computer engineer also needs to know marketing; a doctor might need the basics of AI. So, where does this leave our dear universities? Unfortunately, a bit in the dust. The traditional structure of most university studies is increasingly being seen as rigid and disconnected from the realities of the globalized workforce. Students often emerge, degree in hand, not fully equipped for the realities of their desired industries.

The Irrelevance of University Studies in Today's World

Good old university studies...revered, respected, and increasingly, well, redundant. It's a bit like that ancient, moth-eaten family heirloom that everyone's afraid to toss out, but nobody really knows why we're still holding onto it. Whoa now, before the academia aficionados come running with pitchforks and doctoral theses, let's get some perspective.

Just like fashion, technology, food preferences, and you guessed it, TikTok dance trends - the job market evolves too. Today, employers want to see more than just a degree; they want practical skills, the ability to adapt, innovativeness, emotional intelligence, and the list goes on. They're interested in what you can do rather than what you know. It's kind of like saying, "So you know all the rules of soccer, cool, but can you actually play?"

The truth is, tech companies like Google, Apple, and IBM no longer require employees to have a university degree. Skills, it seems, are becoming more valuable than diplomas. Well, that makes sense – we’ve never heard of a catastrophic system failure being fixed by waving a diploma at a server - unless of course, it's a diploma in IT or something related.

Don't get us wrong, nobody's denying the charm of ivy-covered buildings and late-night philosophical debates over cheap beer and pizza. But, in today's hyper-dynamic job market, the practical relevance of traditional university studies seems to be fading faster than a TikTok trend.

At this point, we’re guessing you're asking for some hard numbers to back it up, right? After all, we're living in an age of data. Let’s talk about underemployment for grads. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the underemployment rate for recent graduates in the U.S. is around 41%. That means nearly half of the people leaving college with new degrees are stuck in jobs that don't require them. Oh, and did we mention the captivating student loan debt saga? Reports show the average student debt in the U.S. is $37,584 per borrower. You can buy a lot of pizza and beer with that kind of cash!

Now, we're not saying you should ditch your dreams of a college degree faster than a bad first date. Every person’s journey is unique, and for some, university education is still an ideal path. But the statistics do suggest a shift in relevance, especially when you consider that according to a CareerBuilder survey, 65% of jobs require specialized skills that you can acquire outside of a traditional four-year degree program.

Now, if you live in a country where college or university are free, lucky you! Beyond what the current job market demands of graduates, there’s an elephant in the room we haven’t addressed yet: the higher education system perpetuates systemic oppression. Let’s analyze how and why.

The history of higher education and how its evolution has contributed to systemic oppression

So let's rewind to way back when, to when higher education was much less about Saturday night keggers and more about philosophical chinwags at the agora. You see, in those dusty old times, the likes of sweet Socrates and his squad were wildly enthusiastic proponents of the old 'knowledge is power' mantra. Problem was, they were also wildly enthusiastic about keeping that power in the hands of the elite few. Same old story, right?

Fast forward a few (hundred) years and the medieval universities were no better. Picture this: a bunch of middle-aged monks huddled over parchment scrolls, guarding the sacred knowledge like a Gollum with a precious ring. Education was (is?) a privilege, not a right - one reserved exclusively for the wealthy and well-connected. And guess who were generally neither wealthy nor well-connected? Yep, you got it - anyone who wasn't a white, predominantly Christian, well-to-do male.

Now, of course, over time, things did start to change. Women and people of color fought tooth and nail, elbow and knee, to claw their way up the ivory tower. But let's not get too misty-eyed just yet - the game was still rigged. As access to education became more widespread, so too did the systemic barriers that kept marginalized individuals perpetually on the back foot. Higher education may have opened its doors slightly wider, but the path to those doors was still laced with landmines of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Let’s be real: higher education is still catered to the privileged few and the physically “able-bodied.” The barriers were still high and sturdy for disabled and neurodivergent people. And, unfortunately, this preference for those without disabilities seeped into the fabric of our educational culture, contributing to a legacy of ableism.

The 20th century brought about changes, with the rise of disability rights and accessibility movements. However, the structure of our higher education system, rooted in centuries of tradition, continued to harbor ableist practices and policies. Fixed schedules, rigid physical spaces, standardized tests, the absence of accommodations like sign language interpreters or alternative formats for learning, plus the one-size-fits-all teaching methods are just a few examples of ableism in academia. Speaking of teaching methods and systemic oppression, what are universities teaching, exactly?

How the higher education curricula perpetuate systemic oppression

Higher education curricula, especially in Western countries and the global north, have a long-standing tradition of sidelining non-white, non-cisgender, non-disabled, non-male voices. It's the academic equivalent of a '90s boy band concert - dominated by cisgender thin white men.

Here's the tea: the bibliography of most college textbooks reads like a list of attendees at a privileged white male convention – names like Kant, Freud, Shakespeare, and Darwin taking center stage, leaving little room for diverse voices. This systemic imbalance extends beyond just a lack of representation. It shapes the way knowledge is shared and understood, reinforcing a single perspective that continues to privilege one group over another.

The curriculum upholds the same old, same old power dynamics and narratives, marginalizing the voices of the global south, queer folks, and people of color. In essence, it is a perpetuation of systemic oppression wrapped up in a facade of intellectual discourse. It's like a wolf in sheep's clothing, seeping its teeth into the fabric of academia and society as a whole.

So, are we in a post-colonial, post-modern world where diverse voices are heard? Well, that's a resounding 'no' from academia. Until higher education curricula quit the fan club of white cisgender men and embrace diversity, we're doomed to keep singing that same, old, tired song. Or are we?

Alternatives to Traditional University Studies

When we talk about breaking the mold, we often refer to challenging the status quo, moving beyond traditional ideas, and forging our path. In the realm of education, this means exploring alternative avenues of learning beyond standard classroom education. There's a growing need to explore these alternative paths, not as a last resort, but as viable, valid options to success. The traditional schooling system, while effective for some, might not work best for everyone. The inherent diversity among learners calls for a variety of teaching approaches, offering choices in how, when, and where learning happens. And this is where alternative paths to success in education come into play.

Traditionally, the education landscape has been dominated by a monolithic model of learning - where students are taught the same curriculum, in the same way, at the same pace. This has often failed to cater to the unique learning styles, interests, and aspirations of individual students. On the other hand, alternative paths in education offer a more personalized, inclusive, and flexible approach to learning. They encompass a wide range of non-traditional learning methods - from homeschooling and online learning to vocational training and community colleges. These paths not only provide a tailor-made learning experience but also equip learners with the practical skills needed for future careers.

This paradigm shift in education is rooted in the concept of "Universal Design for Learning" (UDL). This principle posits that educational environments and curricula should be flexible and adaptable to accommodate individual learning differences. By leveraging the principles of UDL, alternative paths to higher education offer learners the opportunity to study in ways that align with their interests, abilities, and career goals. They aim to ensure that educational success isn't limited to a single, traditional path but is accessible via multiple avenues tailored to the diverse needs of learners.

Traditional education has its merits, but it's not without flaws. The prevalent one-size-fits-all approach has often led to learning gaps, where some students excel while others struggle. The current system also places heavy emphasis on grades and test scores as the primary indicators of academic success. This narrow measurement overlooks other important factors like creativity, critical thinking, and practical skills. Additionally, traditional education often neglects the individual interests and talents of students, focusing instead on a standardized curriculum that may not necessarily align with a student's career aspirations or prepare them for the future.

When we delve into the benefits of alternative paths to success, we discover a more holistic approach to education. These methods provide individualized learning experiences that cater to a student's unique strengths and interest. This is achieved through concrete, hands-on experiences that translate theory into practice, making learning more relevant and engaging. Above all, these alternative paths allow for a great deal of flexibility and customization—learners can study at their own pace, at convenient times, and even from the comfort of their homes.

Numerous alternative paths to success in education are often overlooked. Take vocational training for example, which provides practical, career-specific skills that are in high demand in today's job market. Another alternative is online and distance learning, which offers an array of courses and degrees that are accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. Moreover, we also have homeschooling and unschooling options which provide a flexible, child-led learning environment. Community colleges and trade schools, too, offer more affordable and career-focused education compared to traditional universities.

There's no shortage of success stories showcasing individuals who've broken the mold. From famous cis-white male figures like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, plus billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates—all of them took non-traditional paths to education. Within our communities across the Global South, we can also find numerous examples of individuals who've successfully pursued alternative paths like homeschooling, online learning, or vocational training. These stories serve as a powerful testament to the fact that traditional education isn't the only path to success.

Despite the multiplicity of success stories, alternative paths are often met with stigma and misconception. Many believe that these paths are inferior to traditional education or that they limit a person's career prospects. Furthermore, there's immense social pressure to conform to the conventional path, making it harder for individuals to pursue alternative paths. This is further compounded by a lack of resources and support for those who wish to venture off the beaten track in education.

Overcoming these challenges requires a cultural shift in our perception of education. We need to advocate for alternative paths, dispelling misconceptions and highlighting their benefits. It’s imperative to build a strong community and support system for individuals pursuing these paths. Most importantly, finding mentors and role models can be instrumental in guiding individuals along their chosen path, providing firsthand insights, and instilling a sense of confidence and belonging.

If you're considering an alternative path to education, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Start with self-reflection—identify your interests, strengths, and career goals. Research and explore different options available to you. Think about your learning style and needs. Do you thrive in a structured, classroom environment or do you prefer a more flexible, self-paced approach? Weigh the pros and cons of each option and make an informed decision.

In conclusion…

The emphasis on skills over degrees can democratize access to good jobs. It’s an opportunity for those who might not have the financial means to afford a university education. Plus, with the advent of online learning platforms, acquiring new skills has never been easier, still, securing access for everyone regardless of their income is the current challenge. Contemporary movements are pushing for more inclusive and equitable education systems to correct the sins of the past. 

The diminishing relevance of university studies presents an opportunity for both educators and students. An opportunity to reinvent education, to align it more closely with the skills and knowledge needed to triumph in the 21st century. An opportunity to make learning more hands-on, real-world, accessible, intersectional, and enriching. 

Alternative paths to success in education hold great potential in nurturing individual talents and preparing graduates for the careers of the future. It’s time to think outside the box and break the mold. Let’s embrace the diversity in learning styles and provide equal opportunities for everyone to succeed in education. To build a future where education is truly inclusive and accessible, we need to champion alternative paths and encourage others to do the same.

In the end, it's about time we restructure our syllabi, remix our bibliographies, and create a more harmonious, inclusive arena of voices. Knowledge knows no boundaries. Let's not allow the linear, patriarchal, Eurocentric narrative to confine it. It's 2023, and academia needs to catch up with the times! Be the change you want to see in your university. After all, all knowledge is valid and important; it's high time our universities reflected that.

If you want to learn how to have these kind of difficult conversations with your colleagues to transform your organizational culture, check out our difficult conversations workshop and our online self-paced course for organizations. Fill out this form and we'll be with you every step of the way!

Editado por

Is higher education still relevant?
Raquel Rojas
Marketing & Comms Manager
Neurodivergent, antiracist, queer, feminist, vegan for the animals, mother, sister, lover, Mexican, immigrant. Fan of music festivals by the beach, gin tonics, and annoying people with her unsolicited unpopular opinions.


Related COntent
¡Lleva Fuckup Nights a tu organización!
¡Lleva Fuckup Nights a tu organización!

Transformemos nuestra percepción del fracaso y utilicémoslo como catalizador del crecimiento.