Could associations replace college?

BY Jeff Cobb

Photo of a university building with a question mark
It’s not such a crazy question to ask these days, even if only as a rhetorical exercise to help you develop a long term vision and strategy.

Consider the heat that higher education has taken lately. Tuition costs are high – too high for many adult learners – while the results, many feel, are not what they should be. Employers increasingly feel college graduates are not showing up to work as prepared as they should be. And, while it is still true that college graduates fair better economically than non-graduates, it’s hard not to get the sense that this difference could easily collapse. Ask any recent college graduate currently living in her parents’ basement.

Many are starting to argue, quite convincingly in many cases, that there are good alternatives. Check out Anya Kamenetz, or Blake Boles, or Kio Stark. Or, Charles Hayes, who started arguing the point long ago. (Update, 01.30.14: Noticed today that yesterday Clay Shirky posted this very interesting and relevant piece: The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age.)

Traditional college, which remains entirely too focused on content acquisition, simply may not work all that well for the global learning economy in which we now live. Content, on the one hand, is no longer very hard to come by. On the other hand, much of the content that is really useful in any particular field or industry now changes so rapidly that dedicating a static four-to-five year period to a body of content seems increasingly futile. As I’ve noted in other places, a recent Deloitte study suggests the skills acquired through the average college degree have a shelf life of only five years. That’s a number that seems likely to continue to decline.

Content, of course, is not all that college is about. There is the matter of credentials, for example. But various forms of alternative credentialing seem to be gaining ground. We’ve already noted that we expect to see digital badges get more traction. And colleges and universities themselves are finding that certificate programs are a real cash cow. Finally, sites like Degreed point the way towards self-directed learners managing their own credentials.

There are also the intangibles like “learning to learn” and developing a network that can be of value throughout a career. I’ve seen little evidence that colleges and universities do the former particularly well, though (and, in any case, this is an area where the K-12 system should be carrying the major weight). As far as social networks go, do I even need to point out the plethora of new options for cultivating high value networks? And, of course, associations have always been a valuable resource in this regard.

So, back to associations.

There is a lot of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth these days about the future of associations. About whether membership is still a viable model. About whether associations are even “relevant” any more. Personally, I don’t think there is even the slightest question of relevancy. I think it is just a matter of recognizing and embracing the absolutely critical role that associations play in the American – and, increasingly, global – education system. We don’t often talk about associations that way, but we should. Indeed, I’d argue we must.

And I think that associations could be a viable alternative to traditional higher education for at least some people – probably many more than the constraints of our current thinking will allow us to postulate.

As we argued in the most recent Leading Learning newsletter, competency-based education could be one of the major pathways to that happening. Many associations – particularly trade associations – already run or provide guidelines for apprenticeship and mentoring programs that are essentially a way to develop and demonstrate competency. I believe it would be valuable for leaders at any type of association to look out into the future several years and consider how competency based education could transform your strategy and your education business.

The fact that it is increasingly necessary not only to replenish knowledge and skills but to add new ones throughout a career also positions associations well. “Higher” education may make more sense not as a single, large chunk of time, but as many smaller chunks spaced out over time. By their nature, associations tend to serve and support people continuously throughout their careers – much more so than colleges and universities or employers. They are arguably the institutions best positioned to serve people across the adult lifecycle of learning, to be the source of continuous competency.

I’ve argued before that associations have a unique opportunity in our current “post-cubicle” economy and in what I have labeled “the other fifty years.” In both cases, though, these are roles that associations pick up after higher education. As my thoughts here reflect, I’m coming to believe that the role of associations could start earlier.

Now, what do you think?


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  1. Jack McGrath says:

    This is so true, Jeff. From a business model, when associations scrutinize their differentiators, the ability to provide timely, relevant professional education, plus the networking potential should be their “blue ocean” strategy. This really could transform associations – and our educational system. I teach at a university. That’s where you should learn to become a lifelong learner. The associations can take it from there.

  2. I completely agree, Jeff. The job market has changed over the past decade. Networking has become the key to obtaining a quality position, and students should certainly obtain membership in associations relevant to their studies. Don’t get me wrong; time at university is invaluable for the basic skills and knowledge that form any career foundation; but, beyond that, the CE and continued networking opportunities an association provide are vital. Associations provide far more than a monthly lunch to those who choose to use the built-in CE and networking opportunities.

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