Last updated on April 5th, 2019 at 11:38 am

For decades, it was commonly understood that in order to get some of the best jobs, you had to have, at minimum, a four-year college degree. Any post-graduate work would increase your odds even more. But because of a number of different factors, that mindset is changing. And thank goodness.

What’s causing the shift? A combination of rising tuition fees, an unwillingness to go into debt for the next 30 years to pay off high student loans, an ultra-competitive job market (both from within and from students abroad), and perhaps most importantly, a change coming from the learning institutions themselves are all resulting in a major education disruptor, the microdegree. Microdegrees, also referred to as nanodegrees, are changing the face of higher education and credentialing as we traditionally know it, in a good way.

A four-year degree has long been seen as a must-have for someone looking to enter a competitive job market. But the price for such a degree went far beyond the tuition payments as graduates found themselves in debt, in a difficult job market, and in competition for a job opening against 20+ year veterans in the field. Degrees from some of the most prestigious colleges and universities were reserved for the best of the best, and those who could afford the exorbitant tuition fees. But today, companies are teaming up with colleges, universities and technology firms to offer an alternative to the four-year degree, the microdegree.

A microdegree, or nanodegree, is a more targeted approach to a specialty education, incorporating what the employers actually need in a recruit, not what the college or university “thinks” they might need. It focuses on one specialty, giving the individual a competitive edge in much less time and expense than if they went through traditional education channels.

Several online education companies are leading the way in the world of microdegrees, Coursera, Edevate and Udacity. Coursera is one of the top developers of MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses. MOOCs are online classes that give the participants unlimited access and open admission, which means the student can take any courses they want. Specialized degrees can be earned in six months to a year, and for hundreds of dollars, not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Scholarships and tuition reimbursement are also available. The Venture sums it up nicely, “This fluid approach to learning gives students the freedom to stack and blend the topics they study and gain valuable skills across industries—something that may help them in the ever-evolving field of technology.”

Microdegrees and MOOCs are filling a huge need in advanced education, and are finally being taken seriously by businesses. Coursera announced a partnership with corporate giants Google and Instagram to launch these microdegrees, and are convinced that this approach will result in qualified, well-trained job candidates.

Thanks to this partnership, the online course companies can find out, from the businesses, exactly what skills and training they’re looking for in their employees, and can tailor the programs to suit those needs. These partnerships are leading to more competitive, qualified candidates that can join a company and begin adding value immediately, cutting the learning curve dramatically. Another thing the education-business partnership does is allow the businesses to help define a curriculum path that will lead to accreditation and competency-based certification. This is similar to what Microsoft has had in place for many years.

What other companies are on board? How about names like AT&T, Autodesk, Cloudera, Salesforce, Amazon and Facebook. Not a bad list of influencers, huh? These online course companies are even making it possible for advanced graduate degrees, which makes them a real threat to traditional higher education institutions. They’re gaining the credibility and respect that’s turning them into real disruptors to tradition. And in this situation, disruption is a good thing.

Colleges and universities have to see microdegrees and MOOCs as a threat to their long-standing traditions. The disruption is real and we can probably predict that it’s only going to get more and more defined. The changes that we’re experiencing are forcing disruption at every level of society, business and education.

Top-notch training is now within reach for the masses, in some ways levelling the playing field just a little bit more. Of course, this approach is not going to be a one size fits all for education and training programs. There is still a fee, there is still a time commitment, and there is still a need for discipline. And in some fields, it may not be the best approach. Maybe the balance is a combination of online and in person? For those who are ready to make themselves more competitive, they’re now in a position to become more competitive.

What do you think about MOOCs and microdegrees? Have you ever taken a MOOC? If you had the opportunity, would you pursue a microdegree over a traditional degree? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments.

image: Businessman getting book from laptop screen via Shutterstock
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