The Higher Ed Podcast Series: Re-evaluating the Traditional  

Like most people, we’re getting a bit tired of talking about COVID-19. But it’s our shared reality right now, and as it continues to develop and change many aspects throughout the entire world, there’s still plenty to unpack. Especially as we approach the 9-month-mark of the pandemic here in the United States. We’ve had time to get used to this reality and adjust accordingly, and doing so has given many people a chance to reflect on how things were, how they are now, and where they’re going after the pandemic subsides.  The world of higher education has remained thoroughly engaged in these conversations as it grapples with the difficult loss of enrollments and the uncertain future of higher ed. You can listen to these conversations on Engine’s weekly The Higher Ed Podcast podcast series, where we discuss the state of the industry. This week’s episode featured Shannon Cobourn of ServiceNow, who has an interesting perspective as both a higher ed professional and a parent with two college-bound students. This angle has given Shannon some valuable insight on higher education and the necessity (or lack thereof) of traditional college experiences, which she describes intelligently and eloquently.  

Questioning the Traditional

Taking a traditional college route is certainly not a bad idea, but as times change it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s not the only option. There has been a greater focus on alternative education options, which hasn’t always bee the case. Shannon Cobourn explains the different expectations that her parents had on her versus her own expectations for her 18-year-old son: “In my family, there was no question that I was going to go to college, I was going to graduate…I was going to get a four-year degree. Now my parents weren’t super miffed that I ended up with a degree in literature and a minor in philosophy. Obviously I wasn’t going to college to make the big bucks. But they really believed that having that four-year degree was going to set me on a [career] path.”

Shannon has a different perspective for her own son as he faces the difficult decision of whether to attend or defer college during the pandemic. She recognizes a few factors that stray from the traditional mindset. To start, her background is rooted in alternative education that explores other avenues and empowers students as they figure out their future careers. So Shannon understands that the traditional 4-year college path isn’t the only way to go. She also noted that her son, who is interested in film and applied arts, could learn a lot of the same content as an online college program for free on YouTube (just as anyone could). And doing so would not put him at a disadvantage, as major companies like Apple and Google no longer require employees to have degrees in order to be hired. While these alternative options for college existed before the pandemic, the effect of it has pushed many families to consider them when they might not have done so beforehand.

What Traditional College Really Brings

Despite the increasing attention given to alternative options, there is still plenty of value in attending traditional college and Shannon appreciates these advantages alongside other options. College nowadays is more than simply acquiring applicable skills that students can use in their careers. Now many colleges are focused on providing holistic student experiences, a concept that Shannon explains didn’t even exist 20 years ago. It is this factor- the social factor-  that makes college so appealing to many students and families. Attending college is often the steppingstone between living at home in a familiar, sheltered environment and entering the world as an independent adult.

Even though Shannon’s son could technically learn a lot on his own through the internet, that doesn’t stop either of them from desiring a college experience for him: “…what we’re mourning is that next step of independence. College has been the place where you get to reinvent yourself, you get to figure out who you are and who your tribe is, and you get to, you know, perhaps fall in love for the first time and make mistakes without me texting him every five minutes and asking where he is, or when he’s coming home or whatever… So, you know, he needs to be out from under me to be able to learn who he is as a person. And so we talk about college in terms of the content, what they’re learning in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. And so until I think he can have that experience, I’m not sure I’m willing to shell out $40,000 for something in an applied arts program.”

Considering the Investment

Finances often drive college decisions, and one of the biggest questions of the podcast concerned the investment surrounding college. If cheaper, alternative education options exist, or if you can learn the same concepts for free on the internet, then is traditional college still worth the investment, and why?

Shannon believes that it is: “I think that really depends on the student and the family and what their goals are, but I think it in many cases, it still absolutely is, depending on the program. And it also depends on how the school is thinking through that.” During this pandemic, students and families have really had to take a step back and consider what it is they want out of their college experiences, or what they’re investing in. Meanwhile colleges have had to figure out how to keep students safe while also delivering some kind of student experience- or pushing online learning at the risk of losing students who want those experiences. In this new reality, some students may find that they’re willing to wait for it, and others will not. But college is not black and white- it’s just not a one-way ticket to a career or just a student experience- it’s a range of aspects that prepare young students for many different facets of adult life. Some students may need that more than others. Shannon referred back to the example of Apple and Google not requiring degrees: “…you don’t need a four-year degree to work there, but you need to know how to code, you have to have a substitute for that. You better have a fantastic portfolio of pieces that you’ve pulled together, that you’ve created that show that you know how to problem solve. …So if you have a child, or you are a person who doesn’t have access to those other things, or you’re not driven in the way to find those, then I still think college is the best option for you.”

To hear more of this conversation, among many others, subscribe to The Higher Ed Podcast and follow Engine on social media to stay up to date on it all.