Do we still need college degrees?


Jonathan Mead’s recent blog on “Land Your Dream Job: Ditch School and Get a Library Card” proposes that we may no longer need college degrees to be successful.  He gives great examples such as Bill Gates and Walt Disney.  In an era of social networking and instant access to information, just what purpose DOES college serve? 

In its current format, it’s becoming hard to justify four years of sitting in lecture labs.  However, trends in online education show that enrollments continue to grow across all grade levels:
  • Over 20% of freshman will take at least one online class this year.
  • Over 1,000,000 K12 kids will take at least one online class this year.
In online education, if you’re lucky, your instructor will have incorporated access to social networking tools outside the LMS–blogs, wikis, twitter, facebook, virtual worlds, etc., to help empower the learner in constructing their own knowledge and link them to unique individual and ideas around the world.  We use all these technologies and more in our EDTECH program at Boise State.  So what’s the value-add of using these tools “in college,” as opposed to using them on your own?
First, with a savvy professor or instructor, you have a “guide” in your studies–someone who can facilitate you organizing your own studies, introducing you to important resources that you may not find on your own, assist you by posing questions that allow you to reconsider, think more deeply, and reframe.  A good professor is trained to be a facilitator in your learning process–THIS is their expertise.  This is what you should be paying for in a college education.  
Second, as much as we may or may not like it, degrees open doors.  They provide employers a quick means of determining a baseline or advanced education.  While the self-studier can create a portfolio to leave with an employer to review (and ALL learners should have some place where they collect their work), as an employer, to me a degree indicates that a person has some level of self-discipline, ability to write at a basic level, a foundational knowledge base to think critically, and some subject-specific knowledge.  In today’s competitive economy, I’m going to encourage my kids to move on to college, and at the same time, follow their passions and creative process, wherever that leads them.  My 12 year old asked me if he could be a guild leader and gold-farmer, and start a business.  He’s showing leadership and enterpreneurial skills, even if I’m not quite ready to let him go down that path.
Now, is there a way to reframe higher education so that it doesn’t have to be boring lectures?  Can we support self-directed learning, integrate the voice of individual through social networking, pursue our own passions?  Absolutely.  We work on this everyday in our own program.  Jeff Jarvis also gives us some hints in “What Would Google Do?”  See his chapter on GoogleU.  
As a university professor, I suppose I’m biased about college degrees.  It can even be a love-hate relationship, at times.  But I’m an eternal optimist.  I wouldn’t give up my degree in a million years, and thank the powers-that-be on a daily basis that I put in the time to get the degree done.  I was lucky and had amazing professors in graduate school who taught me to think about the world in a different way.  My goal is to assist others down the same path, to evolve institutions of higher education.  And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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2 thoughts on “Do we still need college degrees?

  1. hdbbstephen on Twitter March 23, 2009 / 6:21 PM

    The problem that some see with college educations is that the colleges will just give them to anyone these days. (half-joking) It is true that a college degree does not mean what it once did, that is, a reliable indicator of smarts, determination, and discipline.I hired and re-trained a lot of college grads when I was a manager in the hospitality industry and frankly, I would rather hire and train non-grads with passion.

  2. Lisa Dawley, Ph.D. March 24, 2009 / 8:12 PM

    I once had a school principal say the same thing to me about new teachers. This had a profound impact on me. I wondered how we could have gotten things so wrong that this person felt he would be better off if his teachers never got a teaching credential. That moment (among others) has been a real driving force in my pursuit to design educational experiences that are meaningful to students, and also provide them the skills they need to get the job done. As I’ve said before, I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe there are many college degrees that do get it right. But I do agree with you on one point–it is hard to “teach” passion. I look for those individuals, as well, when I’m hiring. Thanks for sharing.

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