Distance learning -- especially given the advances of high definition video conferencing -- has long been touted as a way to augment conventional educational techniques. Increasingly, though, it’s worth considering whether it might even be a valuable substitute for a traditional college degree.
Consider the skyrocketing costs of college tuition. For the last 30 years it had been taken for granted that you got a college degree to earn more money throughout your career. Now, however, the student debt problem has escalated dramatically in America. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports $902 billion in outstanding nationwide student loan debt, while the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau estimates the figure at $1 trillion.
With the rising cost of university tuition in America, it's fair to question whether the additional income you might earn with a college degree may actually offset the cost of the loans you need to pay for that degree. Perhaps the answer to the student debt problem is a better embracing of online education.
Online colleges have existed for decades, of course. But I’m not talking about these for-profit universities. I’m talking about an atmosphere of free learning from the best available lecturers. The Khan Academy, for example, is a non-profit organization with a goal of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere. To date, it has offered over 300 million lessons. Its YouTube channel has more than 283 million total views. By comparison, MIT’s channel has 52 million views, and less than half of Khan’s 1,233,000 subscribers. That's the power of video and learning.
The downside of an online education is the absence in many cases of an accredited degree. The reason that has been a problem is because employers do not typically accept course credits over an actual degree.
I believe they absolutely should. For example, you can take practically every MIT course on iTunes University. But because you did not pay tuition, you don't get a diploma at the end of it. That's simply not reasonable for rejecting a promising job candidate in today’s business.
After all, if you take a work-related class while on the job, the certificate of course completion is really not as important as the information you learn in the class. (This is still not true when it comes to certification in certain technical specialties, such as Microsoft computer training, but that’s a topic for another column.)
And honestly, once you've been in the work environment for longer than even a year or two, who cares where you got your degree?
On the Internet, where everything is available, you have access to the best, most unique material from the world’s top scholars. That’s not true in a typical college -- and that’s where an online education becomes more valuable than a typical college degree. If I'm going to spend the kind of money that colleges require for tuition, I want to make sure that I have the best possible lecturers. In an online, open environment, you can find the finest lecturer in any field and absorb that information at your own pace. And as long as you have a connection to the Internet, you can do it for free.
This value is particularly relevant for older workers. Younger people may be willing to carry a five- or six-figure debt load related to their degree. But if I'm a 45 or 50-year-old employee, can I really afford to be saddled with a six-figure debt for a degree that will add only incrementally to my earning potential through the rest of my employable life? Will I make that money back? Probably not.
The necessity of having a degree from a traditional college seems increasingly outmoded even as it has become institutionalized. And it flies in the face of the track record of entrepreneurial giants who have risen to prominence without a degree. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, then started auditing classes for free -- the same classes that would have cost him thousands of dollars a year as an enrolled student. He built his education around the fields that interested him and sparked his creativity.
These days, Apple’s career-track executive positions focus overwhelmingly on college students and college graduates. According to the company’s jobs page, “Apple is a place where students and college graduates thrive” -- not so much about opportunities for self-motivated people without a degree. If Steve Jobs were alive and looking for work today, he’d find it difficult to enter the executive ranks at Apple.
The debate here is whether a college degree is really truly worth the money. Without a degree, you may not be able to earn as much over the course of your career. On the other hand, you will not be saddled with debt. At some point it does seem to become economically unfeasible to earn that degree conventionally.
With the easy access to top quality lecturers online -- in some cases even being able to interact with those lecturers in real time through two-way video connections, what difference does a degree make any longer, as long as you're getting the knowledge?
This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine Jan 2014