A New Breed of College Degree

“We’ve always done it that way.” Universities are rich with traditions and history, but it would be a mistake to think that what we see and experience in the Universities of the last 50 years mimic what came before them. Yes, perhaps certain teaching practices and structures have persisted. However, the curriculum has been in flux, adjusting to the broader changes in society.

Look at the history of higher education and it is a history of change. The first Universities in the world were in Morocco, Egypt and what is now Iran. Those were founded between 800 and 1100 AD.  The first Western Universities emerged near the end of the 11th century: the University of Bologna, the University of Paris and the University of Oxford. In the earliest Universities, areas of study were not nearly as extensive. Theology, medicine and law were among the dominant areas of study in these early years, and the modern concept of academic disciplines did not come along until the 1800s. They spread around much of the globe by the end of that century. Essentially, these disciplines emerged with the scientific revolution, with different disciplines eventually representing distinct methods and approaches to seeking and understanding “truth.” For example, we saw a shift from “natural historians” to physicists, biologists, and chemists. Early in the 20th century, we saw the growth of new disciplines in the social sciences, resulting in programs like psychology and sociology. It is not until the mid to late 1900s that we see saw rapid growth of modern programs like nursing, business, and a host of specializations in areas like gender and ethnic studies. As such, the modern idea of a University offering hundreds of majors is indeed a modern idea. Many of the largest disciplines in colleges today have a relatively short history.

It is no surprise to see yet another expansion of University degrees. The scientific revolution brought forth distinct majors in the hard and soft sciences. The industrial revolution brought about a myriad of professional and career track majors. Now, in the 21st century, we see another collection of degrees emerging in response to the broader trends in society. This time we see interdisciplinary programs addressing the nature of life in an increasingly digital world. Consider that none of the following degrees existed thirty years ago, some less than ten years.

  1. MA in Telecommunications with an emphasis in Digital Storytelling – Ball State University
  2. MA in New Literacies and Global Learning – North Carolina State
  3. PhD in Media Psychology – Fielding Graduate University
  4. MS in Game Design – Full Sail University
  5. Master of Internet Communications – Curtin University
  6. MA in Social Media – Birmingham City University
  7. MS in Digital Marketing – Sacred Heart University
  8. MA in Digital Humanities – King’s College London
  9. MFA in Digital Arts and New Media at the University of California Santa Cruz
  10. MS in CyberSecurity – University of Maryland University College
  11. MBA with a specialization in E-Business at Eastern Michigan University
  12. Master of Distance Education at University of Maryland University College
  13. MA in Digital Journalism at National University
  14. MS in Digital Forensics at the University of Central Florida
  15. Doctor of Ministry in Leadership in Emerging Culture at George Fox University

New degrees are emerging in response to the digital age. There are degrees ranging from education to business, criminal justice to psychology, literacy to theology, journalism to communication. Some look at such programs with concern that Universities are over-specializing, but this seems to be representative of a century-old trend in higher education. As new areas of need and interest emerge in society, higher education responds with new majors, degrees and specializations. Even as new fields emerge, some of those fields converge to create new, interdisciplinary areas. This is the case in an area like educational technology, which has roots in library science and audio visual studies, educational psychology, and even military training.

There is something different about some of these newer degrees. While some are still quite broad (like Internet studies or digital arts), others are very specialized. The scientific revolution produced physicists and biologists, those developed into distinct fields with unique methodologies. Many of these new majors are not fields as much as they represent distinct skill sets and competencies, or the ability to apply the core aspects of a field or area of study in a new or distinct context. These are also areas that seem to be far more fluid and fast-moving, leaving one to wonder whether University degrees are the most responsive and effective ways to prepare people in these areas.

While some Universities are creating such specializations with the hope of reaching and recruiting new students, it is uncertain whether these hyper-specialized degrees give the breadth necessary in a constantly changing digital world. It is no coincidence that the 15 degrees listed above are graduate degrees. Scan the workplace for people with these degrees and you are likely to see a massive number of them working outside the specialization represented in the degrees. Graduates of these programs who are working in the specialities are often working alongside peers with comparable ability, but who do not have such speciality degrees. As such, these are not gate-keeper degrees. While one might opt to pursue such a degree as a means of preparation, there are equally accepted alternatives, even simply demonstrating that you are competent to do the job. A person with 3-5 years experience as a successful marketer who has done so in digital spaces will probably beat out the recent graduate of a digital marketing degree who hasn’t actually done it. The degree doesn’t have greater value than comparable experience in the marketplace. This is different from past eras of new degree growth.

This leaves space for innovation and micro-disruptions. While I do not expect to see higher education institutions moving away from adding more such degrees in the near future, I expect these specific areas to be prime candidates for the trends toward nano-degrees, certificate programs, and more granular training programs recognized by digital badges and other such credentials.