Hundreds of thousands of students have either dropped out of college or turned away from pursuing a college degree. The reasons are endless — the turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the lure of today’s job market, family members having to take a step back and care for parents or children, and a lack of affordable childcare for non-traditional students. 

Perhaps more than any other concern is the cost of a college degree in the United States. Student loan debt in the United States totals $1.747 trillion, according to the Education Data Initiative, and in 2021, 43.2 million student borrowers were in debt by an average of $39,351 each.

Colleges across the United States are facing major challenges. Student enrollment dropped more than 5 percent since 2019. Undergraduate enrollment in 2021 dropped 3.1 percent, or by 465,300 students, compared to a year earlier. 

What used to be a no-brainer — go to college to get a degree to get a well-paying job — is being questioned. For the first time in a very long period, more students are questioning the value of a college degree, or whether they will ever be able to make enough money to pay off their college loan debt to see a return on their investment.

A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found a decline in enrollment and issues in several states since the fall of 2021. In Pennsylvania, public university enrollment fell 12 percent and community college enrollment plunged 23 percent. In 24 states, the number of public university students declined at least 4 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

Another worrisome sign signaling declines in enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, filings. Overall, they are down 9 percent, according to Department of Education data gleaned by the National College Attainment Network. And FAFSA renewals have fallen 12 percent.

Receiving a degree itself is no longer sufficient to enroll in college when so many are facing ballooning student loan debt. Students need to know exactly what competencies and skills they will gain and be able to offer the work world when they graduate.

Tracking students’ skills must be at the forefront of priorities throughout higher education. Throughout a student’s academic journey, he or she will build various skills inside and outside the classroom. 

For instance, a college student who is president of a sorority or fraternity will learn how to be a leader for hundreds of their peers. A liberal arts major who has to take a science course might not understand why, but by tracking skills the student can understand how the course helped build skills in problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration, all while learning about photosynthesis. 

And finally, a student with an on-campus part-time job may benefit from developing strong interpersonal skills while learning how to master time management and self-discipline, and how to juggle multiple priorities.

Many graduates enter the workforce unprepared for how to verify the skills and knowledge they acquired during their academic journey. To date, there is no easy way to measure and keep track of these skills, beyond a resume. But for those who lack the pedigree of a degree from a high-ranking university or who weren’t able to work an unpaid internship while working to pay for college, there needs to be a better way to demonstrate knowledge beyond a GPA.

We need to give students a way to track their skills and learning experiences to enter the workforce with concrete evidence of their obtained skills. Economic mobility should be based on what you know and can do, rather than traditional proxies for talent such as pedigree, degrees and networks. The only way we can achieve this is to track competencies and skills throughout the education journey and use them as the currency of the labor and talent market.

These records, which can be called “comprehensive learner records” or “learner and employment records,” can be used to capture skills and credentials from many sources, such as traditional and non-traditional education, groups, training providers, employers, military and even mentors or self-assertions.

Newer technologies such as blockchain and interoperable data systems that allow for authentic and secure sharing of these records will enable the millions of hidden capable workers the chance at upward mobility — and help colleges reclaim the value of their degree programs for those students who have either walked away from college or started to question whether they will see the return on their investment.

Twenty-first century skills are difficult for universities to quantify and track. Higher ed institutions and employers must work together to incorporate learner and employment records and use secure data systems to help ensure all students gain proof of their knowledge beyond a degree.