Nanodegrees in an Age of Specialization

Remember Animal House? Togas, all-night frat parties, pledging rituals, Belushi and his “COLLEGE” sweat shirt? The cult classic lampooned the golden age of Western academia, a time when Higher Education was more about getting high and coming of age than actually matriculating with a usable degree in hand. Since the Great Recession, the Academy, and students served by it, have undergone a sea of changes. Instead of receiving an education in life, the Humanities, and the like, college and university students seek specific skills that will make them marketable in competitive professions. For many students, the decision to seek specialized skills is all about the math and their return on investment. With higher ed price tags well over a $100k for an undergraduate degree, many would-be traditional students realize it’s too expensive to pursue the traditional academic route. In response, academic institutions continue to shift their offerings toward professional skills and degrees with truncated calendars, and away from the broad education that was the mainstay of universities and institutions in previous generations. What does this mean for our organizations and the people we hire to move our organizations forward? In a word, NANODEGREES.

As the name implies, nanodegrees are hyper-specific certificate and degree programs that provide individuals with a specialized education for specialized work. Often curated in a digital format or in storefront settings, nanodegrees offer courses in areas like data science, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and code writing. Nanodegrees are perfect for individuals who already know that their area of expertise is better served by a defined skillset instead of a four-year shingle. It makes sense. If I need to hire someone to write code for one of my products, am I going to select the guy with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from State U – a generalist – or the woman with job-specific nanostudies in coding, AI, and server development? You already know the answer. The interviewee with specialized training in the areas where I need coverage in my business, brings passion to the job. She’s applying for work that points to the core of her training. She has prepared herself do to exactly what I need her to do. Simply put, nanodegrees grow specialists in the age of specialization. Our organizations need specialists.

For those of us already in established management or technical roles, nanodegrees afford us with continuing education opportunities tailored for our specific settings. Say, for example, you work for a public or not-for-profit entity that needs you to create and manage grants that underwrite a new organizational initiative. After the “oh s**t, I don’t do grants” moment, you conduct a web search revealing that Private U down the street offers a remote, reasonably priced, six-week certificate program in grant origination and evaluation. Six weeks for specialized certification in a skill your organization needs from you? That’s a win-win, if you ask me. You can manage the new deliverable for your current employer and put a specialized certification on the resume for future.

Nanodegrees… Specialized training from the post-ivy, post-Animal House Academy. Yes, there will always be a place for the “school of life” liberal arts degree, but the safe money is on sustainable, financially-sound, highly-specialized nanodegrees. Ultimately, our organizations are the big beneficiaries of the shift toward specialized training. Except for toga manufacturers. They’re screwed.