Random Thoughts

How Much Longer Will a Degree Mean Something?

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This thought has been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks now. How much longer will a college degree mean something? 

What has me thinking is the news I have been following about the Stanford Artificial Intelligence class that is now open for anyone to join. Some 35,000 people have turned in the first three weeks worth of assignments and are completing the same work as those paying thousands of dollars for the course at Stanford only for free. 

At the end of the course, those that complete all the work will receive a certificate from Standford. They can’t actually get Standford credit because…well…that wouldn’t be fair to the 175 students in the class that are spending thousands of dollars to take it on campus. 

So if I can take courses for free and I can get a certificate that says I have completed this course, or that course, what does the degree actually get me?

I think we’ve already started to see the end of the degree in many areas, especially around technology where kids are hired straight out of high school or drop out of college to go work for the likes of Microsoft or Apple just to name a few. 

The knowledge they have trumps a degree.

When do we start hiring for the knowledge you have rather than the degree you hold?

When will a certificate of this open course or that open course mean as much as actually taking the college course?

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?

What happens when you’re hired for what you know not what courses you took?

What happens when the skills you have become more important than the content you know?

What happens when a college degree no longer means anything?


Image: Some rights reserved by blue_j

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. These are some really big questions.

    As a person who teaches, who has paid for courses, and who has audited online courses for free, I’m not really sure where I stand.

    I have been frustrated with the fact that I have spent thousands of dollars for classes to keep my teaching certification when I did not learn much in the courses, but the State of Oregon would not accept items that I have learned in order to be a better teacher without a transcript to back that learning up.

    I don’t really see the need to have a degree going away altogether, but I do hope that there can be some middle ground which will acknowledge the learning that professionals do independent of a formally graded classroom setting.

    I would personally enjoy it if people were hired for what they know and are able to do for most things. It would stop the race to become lettered and would keep the degree meaningful for people like doctors whose training needs to be supervised to insure public safety.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply


      You make some great points. I definitely want my doctor supervised….and I too have taken classes that I didn’t learn much from and then turned around and did some free courses and learned tons.

      At this point….I’m just asking some questions that have been rolling around in my head and I myself am not sure if this is a good thing or not.

  2. Degrees are a huge discussion point when it comes to teacher recertification. Again, same points as Clara. Do I want to spend my time in a class or would I rather spend time in a classroom with kids and collaborating with other teachers to learn from one another?

    Indiana is in a state of transition from recertification based on graduate hours to recertification based on PD hours. It sounds good, but we’ll run into the same problem…how many of those PD hours were on our butts in a meeting? How many were collaborative and engaging? Is there/should there be a difference?

    Education is changing…

  3. This week, five of my 10-year-old students started their own blogs. I can’t help but wonder how quickly they will figure out how to make some money off building websites.

    I won’t teach it…I’ll just help them keep a clean digital footprint. They’ll probably go to college, as per parental expectations. But I wonder what they’ll create in the meantime. I suspect it will be more valuable than their college degrees.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    Janet | expateducator.com

  4. Love the topic and the progress being made in consideration of self-assessed knowledge rather than traditional credit is just a piece of the larger transformation happening. I recently read about a medical school using Camtasia to record lectures. Two things happened: students quit attending the live lecture & grades improved….more A’s. I myself feel better about visiting better doctors. The long term results of this could be extraordinary; more doctors (win!) better doctors (win) lower healthcare costs (win). Am I too optimistic in seeing this virtually every discipline?

  5. Jeff, I have been harping on about this topic for years now. In fact, I probably pissed many a colleague off when I went to university, (almost) 20 years ago to get a bachelor’s in Education, because I loudly thought that the degree was worthless in my goal to learn how to teach. We were taught the philosophy of education, psychology of education, and the theory of education, with very little practical application. It was academics speaking to academics, not practitioners learning from practitioners. Where were the classes on classroom management, record keeping, communication with parents, and assessment?

    The reason for the general lack of real world analysis was, and is, credential-ism. Boards and departments of education reason that a better educated teacher is a better teacher, which is obviously not always the case. Unions preferred to support a cohort that could claim to be better and more professionally trained. And my peers liked the status it gave to have another degree.

    It is another part of the system that needs to change. As you mention, so much of what we do to qualify ourselves say nothing about the skills we possess. The degrees we hold COULD qualify us to understand a discipline well, but it could also just verify that we were good at school. A degree, in many instances, just means we mastered what was on the test.

    Here’s hoping the change is really coming.

  6. Any degree, program, etc. looses most of its value when it becomes widely distributed. Years ago it was unusual for someone to have a college degree, and so whoever did have one had a serious advantage. Now, they are almost taken for granted much like a high school diploma. But the question becomes, if everyone else has one, can you afford to be without? I teach English in Pescara, Italy and try to give the same message to my students: Now English can set you apart from others who don’t speak it and remains a marketable skill. But when it becomes expected and you can’t do it? Then what?

    • Excellent point; with the growing popularity of college (in that more American high school graduates are opting for it than ever before) a college degree is becoming less about education, and more as a means to help sort through a competitive entry-level workforce. Also the college curricula is changing…lowering its rigor and barriers to entry to meet consumer demand.

      I look at where I work (in a public state university in their college of education; for a graduate program in educational leadership {principal & superintendent certification}) as a prime example. 10 years ago our students had to write a master’s thesis and maintain a 3.0 GPA to graduate. Today the thesis option is gone and the classes are simply “P/F” (so technically, they can earn a degree with a 2.0, since C level work is considered a ‘P’). We also offer conditional admission to people who don’t meet our program acceptance standards (like < 3.0 undergraduate GPA); because the bottom line is that our deans and provost want the admission numbers for the tuition money. All the while, the educational integrity of our school, one with more than 150 years of history in training educators (the college was founded as a "teacher's college/normal school"), is being pushed by the wayside. And I'm sure that our college is not alone in this. Back to the original post; I think a college degree is becoming more and more like the high school diploma; it doesn't signify too much in regards to overall knowledge…but since more and more people are earning one (or two, or three), it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a job without one. So yes, the emperor has no clothes; but we all have to continue to play along in order to stay professionally competitive/relevant.

  7. Thanks Jeff! I really believe this will be the big educational conversation over the next several years.

    I tend to think that that the colleges and universities who aid their students in building digital portfolios will be the ones who remain relevant in higher education.

    For so long it has been “the diploma” that demonstrated to employers a certain level of knowledge or expertise. I can’t help but think that soon, it will be a body of work that will allow a person to distinguish themselves from other job candidates.

    Experience has always been the most coveted element for any employer evaluating applicants. If college grads can show “experience” with actual work performed, over and above a list of grades; they will be able to greatly improve their hire-ability.

    Again, Jeff, thanks for extending an important dialog.

  8. I share the opinion of several other readers on this. In fact, my husband and I have discussed this very thing recently. Like Ivan said above, when I graduate in a few semesters, my degree will have taught me the psychology of education, the history of education, and the theory of education. While all of those things are important to teaching, my degree will have taught me extremely limited information about the practical application of teaching. Education (at least at the elementary level) could almost be downgraded to an Associates Degree rather than a Bachelors and cram all that into two years rather than four. This would keep the cost down of a degree and get me into my hands on experiences much faster. Teaching, after all, is mostly about trial and error in the first few years anyhow.

    Also interesting to me is the idea of the skills you have being more important than the courses you took seems like it will bring us back in time to the point before EVERYONE got a college degree, which brought the value of a degree down to this point. It’s funny how history is cyclical.

  9. This post brings about some interesting questions about what we value. Is the actual degree more important or the acquisiton of knowledge that one achieves by taking a course(s)? Employers are looking for 21st century skills and a particular skill set to fill a position. It can now be acheived in a variety of ways.

  10. Deanna Rutter Reply

    I agree with much of this post in that a college degree does not necessarily equate a body of knowledge.

    However, a degree does say something for many of us. It speaks to our ability to presevere, to balance “play” with “work” as most of us did in college, to meet deadlines, and to finish what we start. While a degree might not mean we have the knoweldge to start a job, it may show an employer some of our character and work ethic.

  11. Pingback: Reflection week 6 option 1 | Tim Dunham's Portfolio Page

  12. The act of going to college and the actual degree may not mean that much. It never really has. Most of us gain knowledge and experience by working and interacting with people. I certainly learned more from my extra-curricular activities and work experiences than I ever gained from classroom assignments.

    However, my college classes taught me how to deal with the mundane. I also learned that being educated always comes in handy. The tidbits you learn from a music-appreciation class or a racquet sports class still teach you things you might not ever need, but you might. At the time you learn many of these things, you don’t know what you are going to need.

    Most importantly: “Can you work with others” Hard to learn that in home schooling or on-line schools.

    As a high school teacher I have learned more from my students and have become a better teacher because of it. The content is just a means to those ends.

  13. These are some good points, as a senior in high school, everyone around me is talking about what colleges they are going to, it’s pretty stressful. It’s gets extremely annoying when I tell people I am not going to college, and they tell me that I am stupid and that I’m going to fail in life. All this pressure from teachers, parents, administrators, and friends about going to college is very stressful. I don’t want to go to college. Honestly, school makes me depressed, I don’t want to be more depressed after I graduate high school. All of that debt too would also make me very depressed, if I were to go to college. Many jobs are out there that I won’t need a degree for. I have a lot of skills and knowledge already that I didn’t learn in school, that will get me very far in life, and will make me very successful and happy.

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