Google’s recent launch of a selection of short, affordable professional courses for students who want to learn how to perform specific jobs has seemingly escaped the attention of the masses. I believe, however, that it should be a wake-up call, particularly to colleges and universities. Google’s venture is likely to transform higher education as we know it, and there will be profound implications for the education sector.
The newly revealed development, “Google Career Certificates,” aims to provide students with a foundational knowledge base and skill set that will help them find work immediately. Instead of taking four years to finish one’s studies, as in the traditional university degree program, the Google option will take about six months.
Google has gone even a step farther: it has let the world know that, in its own hiring decisions, it will treat the career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree. It joins the likes of Apple, IBM, Bank of America, Hilton, and Penguin Random House, who also have eliminated that requirement from job applicants. Now Google is seeking other major corporations to follow suit and declares that, so far, it has had positive responses from at least 50 large corporations.
Google is also funding 100,000 needs-based scholarships to support applicants interested in signing up. The program’s cost is not yet determined, but the online “Google IT Support Professional Certificate,” available through Coursera, is $49 a month for each month enrolled. This suggests that a six-month program would cost just a few hundred dollars.
Google’s move is a tsunami, in my view, and it’s headed for America’s higher-education Institutions. In full disclosure, I serve as a trustee of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, which has seen impressive gains in academic rigor, physical plant, and student population over the past decade-plus. And, like many parents, I believed in the benefits of the four-year degree when my child graduated high school. In fact, since the incubation of the modern university in the 11th and 12th centuries, parents have believed that in-classroom and on-campus exposure are necessary components of the education process. We have regarded this experience as essential for our sons’ and daughters’ maturation — an opportunity to learn independence and build networks that will help them when they start their careers.
What is there to worry about? Well, according to the most recent Sallie Mae survey, “How America Pays for College” (2019), most families place financial concerns ahead of academic standing when considering colleges. Some 8 of 10 families say cost is king and governs their decision-making. With the average private institution topping approximately $36,000 per year for tuition only, and many over the $50,000 mark, is this not a field that is ripe for disruption? Certainly, we hear complaints that colleges and universities do not properly prepare students for the skills they will need in the real world. And there is an entire generation of young people who will tell you their lives are on hold — no possibility for their own homes, marriage, children — because their school loan debt takes large bites out of every paycheck and will continue to do so for years to come.
Is it time to hit the “reset” button on higher education, or has Google already activated it? Just as drone technology eventually will revolutionize how products are delivered, and 3D printing has the potential to let us manufacture our own goods at home, the heft and pluck of the Google muscle will cause us to rethink how we educate our own. Online courses have been with us for well over a decade, but they have been largely controlled by the universities and colleges. This is different. Google has just challenged our longstanding assumptions about schooling our young adults. Now it’s time for higher education institutions to parry. And that means a hard look at reality, followed by intense discussion about the future.