Google, pandemic, and a fragile economy are accelerating changes to higher ed

September 9, 2020

Google is changing higher education. It recently announced the launch of Google Career Certificates – affordable, weeks-long courses that culminate in a certificate the company will treat the same as a bachelor’s degree.

On social media, Google leader Kent Walker posted the following: “In our own hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.”

For some, this will make the traditional four-year college experience less desirable – even obsolete.

What does this mean for higher education?

Change – and sooner than expected.

Google’s Career Certificate will likely compound the forces of change already at work in higher education: remote learning (which right now is the only instruction many universities can offer); widespread admissions test reform (dropping or swapping out admissions tests); the advent of the “gap year” for students who aren’t ready to jump into college; turmoil over “cancel culture” on campuses, and the unsustainable ratios of student loan debt to income. With new and faster avenues to careers outside of such a mess, why wouldn’t more individuals opt out of the traditional college experience?

Innovations like these are also likely to have greater impact on higher education during a pandemic – and the precariousness of the economy – than they would during more stable times. It’s not like similar innovations haven’t been coming down the pike for a while. Major players in the private sector (GoogleMicrosoft), higher education (ASU OnlinePurdue GlobalUniversity of Arizona Global Campus) and state public-private collaborations (Talent Ready) were already working to change the higher education landscape, particularly in the area of workforce preparation.

Alternative educational paths and career certificates have always promised to get people working in a good career in less time with less debt, but these have now become a key policy response to a fragile economy. Still, some may argue that education ought to be about more than workforce preparation. Many believe that a proper education should expose students to the liberal arts and inculcate American values for citizenship as originally intended in our nation’s early history.

The truth is, higher education has some ground to cover to prove its institutions still satisfactorily meet such noble objectives. Until they do, and until they also meet workforce needs more quickly, higher education will continue to feel the disruptions of innovations like the Google Career Certificate more profoundly than it has in the past. And that might not be a bad thing.

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Christine Cooke Fairbanks

Christine is Sutherland Institute’s Education Policy Fellow. She is a member of the Utah State Bar, with a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from Arizona State University. She worked as an English teacher at a public school and a residential treatment center. She also worked with the Arizona Office of the Governor, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Goldwater Institute, and The Heritage Foundation.

Christine has participated in a number of state study groups to inform policymakers on issues like special education and modernizing education funding. She served as appointed member of the state Competency Based Learning Review Committee, which advises the Utah State Board of Education. Christine is regularly featured in national, local and regional publications and radio shows.

She also served in her neighborhood as a member of the Greater Avenues Community Council.