Tuesday, November 29, 2011

College Degrees and Relevance

Over the holiday, at some point I came across this blog post asking how much longer will (college) degrees mean something. It was a short, but interesting post, and something that I've thought about in the past; not in reference to how much longer will college degrees have a monopoly on accreditation of individuals, but rather I've been pondering what does a college degree mean.

The impetus for this post seem's to be Stanford's AI MOOC, which apparently will give out certificates of completion to those who participate and do the work.  Jeff, the author of the other blog posses the following questions which I wanted to tackle a bit:

When do we start hiring for the knowledge you have rather than the degree you hold?
We used to do that, and we ought to be doing that now. One of my concentrations while an MBA student was Human Resources Management, and as a student one of the key things is that the piece of paper doesn't matter, but rather it's the skills that do.  The problem is that there is a disconnect between HR and the department that's hiring.  The department writes the job description, which is ultimately what HR posts and they collect resumes/CVs for. The degree becomes one more check mark in the automation process, and your perfectly good candidate can be denied because they don't have a specific degree. This is done in the name of efficiency, but this type of efficiency overlooks qualified candidates.

When will a certificate of this open course or that open course mean as much as actually taking the college course?
Never - OK, maybe I shouldn't say never - so let's say "I wouldn't hold my breath."  In a good and thought out curriculum, there are competencies that students need to demonstrate before being allowed to graduate. Coursework is part and parcel of honing those skills so that you can qualify for those competencies.  Doing one course and getting a certificate is not the same as going through a thought-out program, with a set of competencies, that you can easily demonstrate.  Even if you strung together a number of open courses (MOOCs) each giving you a certificate, since the certificates are all issued by different authorities, with different standards and measures, it's still not the same as a college degree.

What happens when a college degree really doesn't mean anything other than you spent x amount of hours with your butt in a seat somewhere for four five six years?
You know, a college degree is more than the sum of the courses you took and how much time you spent in class. A college degree, especially today, should set you up to be a critical, reflective, life-long learner who can cope with anything that life or work throws at them. Content is important so far as  it gets you your first job. You can't be a java programmer unless you've spent so many hours programming and learning the language and learning its kinks.  You can do this as part of a degree program...or you can do it on your own.  Time on task however does not change.
What happens when you're hired for what you know not what courses you took?
I've never had anyone hire me for the courses I took; and I honestly don't know anyone who does hire people based on courses they took. Hiring managers are looking for people who can synthesize knowledge from their entire curriculum.
What happens when the skills you have become more important than the content you know?
Again, in practice it is the skills that matter, not content - this is reality today, but it's not seen as key based on our hiring practices. Employers do want  individuals who can look things up as needed.  Some content is important: you can't hire a biologist of physicist if that person has little exposure and hands-on time with the actual subject matter. Would YOU want your surgeon to look things up during surgery?  Medical students, before they become doctors have both content area knowledge and skills developed through simulations and practice - hey, nice tie-in to the topic of this week: simulations, lol - not all professions are like this, but some are. In any case, you need both content area knowledge and skills. One is not interchangeable for the other, but as you grow up as a professional, skills are more important because content gets stale and needs updating.

What happens when a college degree no longer means anything?
I think we will cross that bridge when we get to it, but it's still a long long way down the road. Colleges are accredited institutions (now how far that accreditation goes is up for debate, as I and others have written in the past), but there is a measure of some sort.  Even with Mozilla's open badge initiative it will be a while before any self-reliant, self-motivated individual can put together a cohesive set of courses (if we are measuring in terms of courses!) to qualify as a college degree alternative.

What I think is amiss here is the questioning of what a college degree signifies - and that is "Expertise" in something that someone else with expertise is willing to vouch for someone else.  People have, and do, get street cred for their work and expertise through alternate means (example: portfolios of their work), but those individuals are also people who don't get their jobs through "normal" means (i.e. through the HR department). When alternatives to showing off one's expertise become more relevant and used by hiring managers and HR departments, then the college degree will be dethroned as the measurement by which people are hired.
blog comments powered by Disqus