By many accounts the world has been transformed more over the last year than in decades previously. U.S. Department of Labor statistics from March 2021 indicate employment levels being nearly 4.7 million less than at the same time in the previous year even though unemployment rates are slowly decreasing. Additionally, the acceleration of remote work and use of AI and automation have potentially dramatically changed the skill sets required for the workforce of the future. Responding to the changes many companies are focusing more on specific skills and experiences resulting in a potential shift in hiring practices in some sectors replacing the previous focus on degrees and majors with an emphasis on specific work-related credentials, and experiences.
In addition the ability to count these credentials towards the credits needed for a degree at a later date, and to stack sets of offerings in individual certificates/credentials towards an ultimate degree would also be beneficial. An important consideration is that the short-term credential often assists in maintaining employment which would not be possible if the full degree had to be pursued to gain the desired knowledge which is a subset of the advanced degree.
Many of those already in the workforce are highly motivated and are capable of gaining knowledge through self-paced asynchronous modules without significant interaction with others since the application of knowledge pertains directly to their work, or the field of work in which their employer would like them to transition.
Through the use of modularity and online educations, existing advanced level university courses could effectively be structured into introductory, core, and specialized modules with these being made available in a variety of modalities to non-degree seeking students.
Further, these modules, and the courses/credentials mentioned earlier, in collaboration with professional organizations and industry sectors could be repackaged into appropriate certificates and credentials that are recognized and accepted by appropriate industry segments for employment and/or progression in careers. Availability in self-standing and online modules would ensure the flexibility needed by working professionals, while the offering through a well reputed institution of higher education would significantly reduce the current concerns of low-quality offerings through entities that perform this function purely for profit.
For the most part, universities have largely considered non-credit and non-degree offerings as distinct aspects of their function. However, the future lies in dissemination of knowledge over a continuum and will require not just the greater integration of academic affairs and continuing education units within the institution but also closer and direct collaboration and partnerships between the university, its faculty, chambers of commerce, local/regional offices of workforce development and professional organizations/associations with a focus on enabling not just education of students through degrees, but also to reskill/upskill employees on a continuous basis. None of this negates or reduces the value of a degree. Rather it extends the range of knowledge offerings over a continuum in forms/modalities appropriate for various stages of life/careers.
The synthesis of these functions and the enablement of a continuum of offerings from modules and courses through certificates, certifications, credentials, to degrees is essential if universities are to meet the demands of the 21st century, being a partner and enabler in the communities they serve, ensuring not just social mobility through education, writ large, but also socio-economic growth through knowledge dissemination and training. This re-envisioning of the social compact between public universities and the community is a logical 21st century analog of the goals of the original land grant universities as envisioned by the Morrill, Hatch, and Smith-Lever Acts.
Vistasp M. Karbhari is a Professor in the Departments of Civil Engineering, and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he served as President from 2013-2020. He is on Twitter @VistaspKarbhari and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/vistaspmkarbhari
 V.M. Karbhari, 5 Ways a Flexible Academic Structure Increases Equity. eCampus News, March 16, 2021. https://www.ecampusnews.com/2021/03/16/flexible-academic-structure-increases-equity/