Do you still need a university education?

It seems like an odd question for me to ask, especially given the company I’ve spent the last decade building depends on this answer being an unequivocal yes. But increasingly, world-class companies including Google, Apple, IBM, and others have removed college degrees from their hiring requirements.

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to imagine building a successful career without the foundation of a post-secondary degree. Higher education has long been seen as the great equaliser that supported the notion that with the right education, anyone could build a better life for themselves. Unfortunately, the need for a university education is being called into question at a time when higher education is arguably needed more than ever before.

So what are the driving forces behind this shift in mindset?

Our economy is undergoing a seismic shift as automation — including robotics, machine learning, and AI — disrupts virtually every sector of the job market. Multi-year fields of study are quickly being outmoded by the sheer pace of technological change. Much of the white-collar work universities prepared students for in the past is now being recast.

Then there is the issue of cost. Student loan debt in the U.S. has ballooned to more than $1.5 trillion. In Canada, students owe more than $28 billion to all levels of government. Here in my home province of Ontario, student debt contributed to one out of almost five cases of insolvencies (17.6%) in 2018. The sheer cost of higher education has created a burden that many people continue to bear even as they move into their retirement years. It’s little wonder that so many graduates question whether college was really worth it.

There is growing pressure to increase the value students get from their educational experience. More than half of college graduates report being unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require a degree. And the growing popularity of alternatives such as coding bootcamps are meeting the demand for skills-based training even though many of these jobs will be automated into oblivion in the near future. All of this is forcing colleges and universities to rethink the value and relevance of what they provide to students inside and outside the lecture hall so that students can derive more out of their educational experience.

Let’s be clear: in preparing students for a world that changes more quickly by the day, higher education remains vital. Financially, the median annual income of someone with a degree is higher than that of someone with a high-school diploma. Healthwise, studies have shown that people who have attained a level of higher education tend to make healthier choices. And those with a degree are more likely to make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives, ranging from personal lifestyles to civic involvement.

Even so, there is tremendous urgency to improve the educational return on investment for students. The equation is simple: to raise ROI, we must boost the educational value to students while reducing the costs of tuition and course materials.

How do we do this?

It starts with recognising that effective learning is characterised by collaboration and exploration. It is active and experiential. The modern classroom must provide a counterpoint to the age of automation by emphasising the distinctly human qualities of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration. After all, it is these very traits that will allow the next generation to adapt and thrive at time when change is the only constant.

It also means helping students understand their unique talents and how they can be applied through work that is meaningful, financially rewarding, and beneficial to society. Technology is now giving us the tools to do all of this at scale. Combined with the educator’s own experience, we have the opportunity to turn every lecture hall, no matter how big or small, into places of challenge, vitality, and relevance.

Empowering educators to support student success

Improving educational ROI underpins everything we do at Top Hat. Our goal is to accelerate the transformation of teaching and learning in higher education by empowering educators to engage students and unleash their potential. We’re doing this through the use of technology by offering an all-in-one teaching platform that supports student learning before, during, and after class. This includes making it easier for educators to gain insight into their students’ performance, to course correct in real-time, and to deliver content and learning experiences that are more engaging, more fun and, ultimately, more effective. We’re also putting our money where our mouth is: Top Hat recently awarded $100,000 in scholarships to exceptional students to enable them to continue their academic achievements.

I am delighted to share that we received a strong vote of confidence in furthering our mission. Top Hat just announced that we raised $55 million in Series D funding and we’re excited about what this means. This money will go directly into a critical component of transforming higher education: accelerating the shift from traditional textbooks to digital course materials.

This means working with print publishers to provide educators and students with interactive, high-quality, customisable, and affordable course materials through our active learning platform. We will also scale our ability to empower professors with the technology and support to author, adopt, curate, and adapt course materials to create personalised and responsive learning experiences for students.

We are very excited about what the next few years have in store. Supported by a team of talented, driven people, we’ve already made an incredible impact on the educational experience of millions of students since we started Top Hat 11 years ago. And we’re just getting started. We’re scaling quickly and are looking forward to having many more passionate people along for the ride. If learning and challenging yourself is a key piece of your DNA, and you want to be a part of an award-winning company culture, come join us.

With the support and confidence of our investors, customers, and employees, Top Hat will continue building on the incredible growth we’ve achieved to empower professors to work smarter and more effectively so they can improve the educational return on investment for their students.