Column: Why Get a Four-Year College Degree in the 21st Century?

January 08, 2020


  • Dr. Adrienne McCormick was appointed as provost and executive vice president in May 2019.
  • She previously served as Winthrop's dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Note: This column by Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Adrienne McCormick appeared in a December 2019 edition of The State newspaper.

I attended the graduation ceremonies for both of my parents. My father completed a four-year degree in technical trade education in 1977, when I was eight years old, and my mother completed her Bachelor of Science in nursing in 1991, the same year I completed my Bachelor of Arts in English. After graduating from public regional institutions in Michigan and Alabama respectively, my father applied his degree to a long career as a manufacturing engineer with General Motors, and my mother went on to an advanced degree that opened doors to leadership positions in nursing administration. My own degree from a private, four-year, liberal-arts institution led to graduate school and a 20-year career in higher education.

I have four children, and I can’t help but wonder—as all parents do—what career paths they will follow.  My oldest just went through the college search process and is wrapping up his first semester at Winthrop. The recruitment events and open houses we attended gave me a wonderful opportunity to see first-hand how neighboring colleges and universities respond to the questions which I raise for you here. Why should today’s high school graduates seek four-year degrees? Are they still relevant? What should today’s college students be prepared to do?

We live in a time of unprecedented change. Whether you listen to educators, economists, historians, media commentators, journalists, YouTube influencers, or Ted Talk participants, you will hear today’s disruptions compared to what took place during the industrial revolution. But what we are seeing in the restructuring of today’s economy is arguably more transformative than industrialization.

An industrialized workforce led to a retooling of educational systems to produce the assembly-line and management workers needed to keep the industrial machine in motion. That is not the workforce needed today and won’t prepare tomorrow’s learners either. The digital revolution we are in the midst of requires us to rethink educational systems to respond to the changing needs of the global digital economy and civil society.

Nothing prepares today’s learners for this changing world better than a four-year degree. High school and even college graduates will not walk straight into a single career path, as my parents and I did. On average, studies show that current graduates will move through six-to-seven career changes in the present economy. People joke about pursuing careers that are robot-proof, but the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence on the workforce are real. Students of any age who graduate with strong learning skills will be resilient and thrive in this economy. Graduates prepared with narrow skill-sets tooled to yesterday’s economy will not.

Today’s learners must be prepared in areas where humans excel: critical thinking, problem-solving, innovation, communication, teaching, the creative arts, and the ethical dimensions of digital interactions, especially with other humans. Only by coming together in communities of learners can we interact with people who are different from us, in as many ways as possible, and develop the skills to connect across those differences. Learning digital civility is as important today as digital literacy in order for our graduates to be fully engaged citizens.

Recognizing that today’s learner is changing too, we need easier paths from prior-learning to micro-credentials and from two-year to four-year degrees. But the four-year degree—however arrived at and at whatever age—provides significant increases in social mobility as well as the most robust toolkit for thriving in the 21st century economy and our democracy.


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