In public discourse, “higher education” is a term that differs from traditional schooling such as elementary, secondary, K-12 education. In America, higher education is often believed to be above and beyond traditional schooling into the academic domain of colleges and universities. Similar terms such as adult & continuing education, vocational training, and lifelong learning are often mentioned among educators, but most people don’t bother to define their differences. In the UK, other terms such as tertiary, permanent, further, and recurrent education add to its complexity.
The trouble in these discussions has less to do with the multiple terms of higher education, and more with the public sentiment. In other words, the way that multiple societies view higher education reveal some deep-seated opinions about the purposes of education and learning. Opinions bounded by distinctions between required schooling versus optional education.
This leads to the question of whether the sole purpose of higher education is to acquire a college degree? A degree supposedly considered not required nor essential, but only an advancement or enhancement to a high-school diploma and required equivalents. Also this degree is a form of credential that not only gets you a job, but also provides more opportunities to better careers.
However, current times challenge this typical mindset. Examples show that a degree does not always transfer to getting a job, and additional credentials are no longer optional, but are seen as paramount to maintaining a career.
Lagging behind the times is the misrepresentation of the term higher education. Given current circumstances, higher education is an outdated word alluding to a time when more education was an option of leisure. “Higher” still suggests a “lower,” just as “required schooling” implies “optional learning,” which colleges and universities used to originally represent.
In the next phase of this public discourse, education is no longer higher and learning is no longer optional. Such a discussion invites a new mindset willing to remove linkages of trading credentials for better employment. Instead, there is an acceptance that education and learning is a lifelong public pursuit where talents are discovered, ideas are supported, and vocations are created.