So What Actually is a “Degree”?

This entry is part 2 of 13 in the series Cost of College


Returning to that continued Monday discussion of what new free learning tools might mean to students and parents staring down six-figure tuition bills (which allegedly buy a ticket to a better life), I read a story last week that clarifies why conversations containing the words “degree,” “diploma” and “college” seem to be so murky.

The piece, written by Kevin Carey in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlights the peculiar gap that has opened up between how institutions of higher education see themselves (as the inheritors of the great tradition of scholarship and learning) and how most students see the degree-bearing programs offered by these institutions (as the means to obtain a better job leading to a more successful and financially rewarding career).

The world of for-profit education saw this gap (correctly) as a market opportunity, creating a new series of degree programs designed specifically for those seeking a credential that will set them apart from other job seekers. For example, the Chronicle piece highlights an online associate-degree program in office management offered by the University of Phoenix that graduates over 27,000 students a year, paid for by government loans with high default rates.

Those committed to responsible spending in education have justifiably jumped on for-profits that seem to be creating new majors for the sole purpose of seizing a newly created market, one in which tax payers foot much of the bill with someone (probably you and I) ultimately holding the bag for the impending trillion dollar educational debt implosion.

But what makes Carey’s piece so compelling is the j’accuse he throws at the elite colleges and universities who set themselves apart from those grubby “for-profits” while all the time engaging in the same market-driven scheme by rapidly expanding lucrative Master’s Degree programs in areas like business, raising prices for Master’s programs in areas like education, and concocting new MA programs (with high price tags) in fields where oversight is slight to non-existent.

Employers (those who routinely complain that college students they hire don’t know anything) share some blame for this current state of affairs. For as hiring processes (like college application processes) became more automated and, thus, “efficient” (leading to hundreds or thousands of applications submitted online for any posted job), the simplest way to winnow down a mountain of serial job seekers is to throw out any resume that doesn’t come from someone with a BA or MA (even for jobs that list those credentials as preferred but not required).

In short, while a “diploma” from a “college” still conjures up images of cap-and-gown-wearing, freshly minted scholars walking in a graduation line as great seers look down approvingly from the dais and the heavens, the massive expansion in higher education discussed in the most recent Degree of Freedom newsletter means we have created a whole slew of new products trading on the name of the “diploma.”

I’ll be expanding on what this means in the next issue-oriented Degree of Freedom news which will hit the ether later this week (giving you a few days to subscribe using that registration field over to the right).

But between now and then, I’d like to work one of the most recent news stories related to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – Udacity’s decision to no longer offer certificates for completing their free courses – into this discussion of what to call the pieces of paper (or PDFs) one actually earns upon completing any form of advanced learning.

Stay tuned…

Series Navigation<< Forget About MOOCs – What’s an Actual College Diploma Worth?What’s the Most College Should Cost? >>

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One Response to So What Actually is a “Degree”?

  1. Steve Darden May 2, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    Questions: (1) have you any perspective on the Minerva Project? Personally I’m hoping they get enough traction to test innovations that improve radically staff productivity.

    (2) Udacity doesn’t openly discuss their ‘partnership strategy’. That means working closely with employers to learn what Udacity can do both to improve new-employee performance, and to improving testable student-evaluation data. E.g., so Google can measure outcome effects of assessment.

    My impression, no real evidence, is that Udacity is paying much more attention than Coursera to what Google/Apple want than to marketing Udacity to the academy.

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