Another View: What is a college degree worth, anyhow?

Stephen H. Holden

Almost daily, we learn something new about an apparent scandal over the credentials of high-level government and industry IT officials. Many fingers point to unaccredited institutions of higher learning. The issue raises a larger question: What's the real value of a college degree, especially a graduate degree?

As a researcher and teacher in the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus, I may be biased. But I'm also a perpetual student; it took me 10 years to earn my Ph.D. while working full-time at the Office of Management and Budget.

A college degree is not an indication that the recipient is smarter or more talented than someone without a degree. With determination and discipline, an average person can get through a graduate degree program.

Many bright and talented people never finished college. I worked at the IRS with a 35-year veteran of public service who did not have a college degree. I learned a great deal about how organizations work from that person'knowledge I could not have gleaned from any book or class.

But a college degree is a good indicator that you are disciplined enough to handle sudden freedom, tune out distractions and complete assignments from occasionally flaky professors for four years.

In the best scenario, college exposes a student to a broad view of the world. Students also learn the language of their profession. But should employees be hired or promoted based on their academic credentials? My answer is a qualified yes. It depends on whether the employee or candidate is at a midcareer point or just out of school.

For newbies, academic records are good indicators of potential. But for the experienced worker, it's not clear that an undergraduate or graduate degree guarantees that employee will add more value to the organization.

Yet many organizations pay for employees to go to school part-time while they work. Some promote individuals who complete a degree. Higher levels of education correlate with higher lifetime earnings.

What's the value of a diploma from a relatively easy program or one that simply grants course credits for life experience?

The value of an education depends on how much effort you invest in it and the extent to which your learning extends beyond your experience.

If you don't have a few classes each semester that cause you to say, 'I never thought of it that way,' you are not getting a good return on your investment. Real education requires challenging projects and a lot of reading.

Why anyone would spend time and money getting a degree from a diploma mill is almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the person seeking such a degree is trying to compensate for insecurity over experience or ability.

Even with accredited schools, both student and employer must assess the rigor of a program when appraising the value of the degree the school grants. Claiming a degree from a little-known program or one with low academic standards may not be fraud. But such a degree ain't worth much.

Alternatively, being challenged in the classroom at a quality research university, even if you don't get a master's degree or a doctorate, is priceless.

Stephen H. Holden, a former federal employee, is assistant professor in the Information Systems Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. E-mail him at [email protected].


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