The Worth of College Degrees

About 3 or 4 years ago I found myself in a Barnes & Noble (an actual store for books for you young ones) looking for a programming book of sorts.  I was pretty disappointed in the selection and vocalized this not realizing there was someone standing nearby.  The older gentleman, overhearing me, decides to spark up a conversation with me about education (this seems to happen to me often).  During the course of this discussion, this anonymous man makes one comment to me that has stuck with me for years – “Degrees only matter for a point in time.”

Over the years, while completing my degree and making the transition into the real world, this statement has resonated in the back of my mind.  As my career has progressed and my skills have developed, I’ve come to really understand the meaning of this anonymous man’s statement.  Moreover, I’ve come to believe whole heartedly that college degrees actually don’t mean much more than you are a trainable monkey.  That is to say that we, as a society, put too much emphasis on college degrees.

Before I continue, let me make one thing very clear.  This article is not meant to say that college is all bad.  It is not meant to be a debate about the value of higher education.  I fully believe that higher education is completely necessary.  College is not all bad.  You have a tremendous amount of learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom that you would not get in any other environment.  The networking opportunities that you have in college are unparalleled.  So for emphasis, the argument here solely focuses on the value of a college degree.

Depending on where you live, the salary discrepancy between those with college degrees and those without is somewhere between 40 and 99%.  What I have always found particularly interesting about this little statistic is that those with only high school degrees tend to find their way into the workforce much earlier giving them the opportunity to gain real world experience, while those in college come out (in a lot of cases) with little to no real world experience.  A degree is not necessarily a good indicator of one’s ability to perform a job.  It is a good indicator of that individuals ability to test well in controlled situations.

Real world experience, whether through internships or full time work, is much more valuable than a degree.  I have interviewed many recent grads over the past few years only to find that most of them spend no time outside of the classroom learning about the industry they hope to play in.  They come to interviews with the ability to regurgitate textbook definitions of technical terms, but no idea how to apply that knowledge to a real world situation.  Perhaps my standards are a bit high,  but only 42% of employers believe recent graduates are ready for work so I am obivously not alone.  Even companies like Google see less of a value in college degrees these days with more emphasis on the skill set of the individuals.

The fact is, education actually extends beyond the classroom, and many students fail to realize this.  If you are a student in a a college degree program that stops learning once you leave the classroom, you are not doing your job.  The traditional definition of the word education is dated with an emphasis on classroom based education and perpetuated by a class of individuals that view themselves above those without college degrees, unless, those individuals become tremendous success stories like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.  Sadly, this definition is taken as doctrine by most of today’s students leaving them far behind the curve when they graduate with these degrees.

Websites like Coursera and services like iTunesU providing top notch education from major Universities are making higher education much more accessible to individuals who have an interest and drive, and are making college degrees less necessary.  Society today still puts a heavy emphasis on college degrees, but we are starting to see a shift from that model to something different.  It is not an entirely new paradigm.  We are all required, in the professional world, to stay current on the changing times, laws, and technologies long after receiving that piece of paper that seems to define us; however, it seems society may finally be starting to put less emphasis on college degrees.

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