Forget About MOOCs – What’s an Actual College Diploma Worth?

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Cost of College


Over the last couple of Monday’s I’ve started to address what my Degree of Freedom project might mean for students and parents trying to figure out what’s next for them as they think about applying, selecting and shelling out thousands for college.

Questions regarding whether I worked as hard or learned as much during my One Year BA as someone attending a traditional residential college is open to debate (you can see my own arguments on the matter here and here).  But one thing that I made clear early on is that this was a learning vs. an earning experience, meaning that I never intended to try to use the courses I was taking to obtain an actual diploma from an established college or university.

Now there are ways to turn online courses (and all kinds of other learning experiences) into actual college credit, a subject I’ve discussed in a multi-part series that starts here and plan to dive into more deeply over the coming weeks.  But before looking into what MOOCs and other free learning tools can do to help students shorten or cut costs as they study and pay their way to a formal degree, we should stop and ask what that formal diploma might actually be worth.

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to introduce some arguments regarding the value of a traditional degree here on the blog, but provide a more extended discussion of the topic in this week’s Degree of Freedom newsletter.

For new readers, this newsletter tends to get published every other Monday and has traditionally included reviews of completed courses.  But now that I’m not taking as many classes as I did last year, I’ll be shifting the focus of that publication to an examination of issues emerging at the intersection of technology and education. And because of the holidays, this week’s issue will be coming out on Wednesday (which gives you a couple of days to sign up using that field over to the right – the one below my course lineup links).

So the top five things you should keep in mind as this discussion kicks off include:

(1)    Close to three times as many students attend college today vs. 40 years ago, and they have more than twice as many schools to choose from as they did just 25 years ago.  So even as we debate how much should be invested in education, keep in mind that a ton must have already been invested in order to support growth of this scale.

(2)    Those numbers demonstrate that, as a society, we have not just prioritized but largely succeeded in making college available to anyone who wants to attend (albeit not perfectly and at a cost).

(3)    Beyond financial costs, such growth has led to a dramatic transformation of what we mean when we say “higher education.”  While visions of studious 18-22 year olds pouring through books on a manicured campus lawn still come to mind for many when they think about the higher ed experience, today the young, residential college learner barely represents half of college enrollees.

(4)    In addition to changing where students attend school (at residential, commuter or online campuses) and what type of school they attend (private, state, community, for profit), the expansion of college opportunity has been accompanies by a vocationalization of studies, with majors like computer programming or business growing as teaching in traditional disciplines (such as liberal arts) remains static or shrinks.

(5)    The people who are supposed to be impressed by a college diploma (notably employers) have yet to come to grips with how much the meaning of such a document has changed over the last several decades.  But as they do, I expect those who thought they were buying themselves a job by investing in four years (or more) in college-level study will be in for a very rude awakening.

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