Death Of The Degree? Not So Fast

The death of the college degree – the standard signal for an educated adult for over a millennium – is foretold by the lions of Silicon Valley.  Over the past year, the phenomenon known as massive open online courses (MOOCs) — now being offered by elite universities like Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley — have been featured in virtually every major media outlet.  The prevailing notion reflected in breathless headlines is that taking a MOOC or two to learn a specific skill – and, in the process, earning what’s being called a “badge” – will kill degrees whose length and cost seem antiquated.  Like overgrown Boy and Girl Scouts, adults will sport a collection of badges instead of framing and hanging their diplomas.

Degree doubters have a valid point. The degree is a crude instrument for evaluating educational attainment. A bachelor’s degree merely indicates that a student sat (or slept in a drunken stupor) through at least 120 credit hours of C-graded “college-level” work.

But the degree is not going away; even Silicon Valley billions will not disrupt it. For one, degrees are deeply embedded into the fabric of the labor market. The U.S. Army effectively mandates a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree to become an officer. Doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals may not practice without degrees from accredited universities. More broadly, a bachelor’s degree is universally viewed as the price of entry to a white-collar career (although increasingly not a guarantee).

Degrees are so embedded because they deliver significant value to students and employers. For students, there is a great deal of interaction and accumulation across the components of a quality university degree. Degrees push students to take classes they would otherwise avoid. The outcomes – critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, teamwork – are hard to measure, often overlooked and, like many things in life, unappreciated until they’re gone (which explains, but does not lessen the irony of the fact that the critics and would-be disruptors all have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from elite universities).  And to the extent badges attempt to enforce the same discipline and achieve comparable outcomes, they sound remarkably like degrees.

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