What $10,000 Can Buy In A College Degree

Untitled-1Huskies husky diploma UWHistorically, academic degrees were created to recognize expertise in religion, law, and government.  The terms “Rabbi” and “Doctor” were both pathways to careers dependent on book learning.  Similar titles recognized elite expertise in Confucian, Islamic  and Buddhist countries. In the West, with the enlightenment, came the encyclopedias and the belief in the power and authority of knowledge in other fields… science, geography.  Even art, history and literature became degree requiring career paths.  By  the last century, the panache of education became a broad requirement for employment.  Everyone .. from secretaries to French teachers and accountants needed a degree. Democracy and education seemed natural allies.

In the 1990s things changed.  The number of jobs that could be made more efficient  when done by computers hugely increased.  Knowledge went from being an asset available only to the well educated to something available on your cell phone. Global communication meant a company in Seattle could outsource its knowledge needs to  Hydrabad. The question became why we couldn’t we use the computer generated efficiencies to decrease the numbers of elite people needing broad knowledge ?

Put another way, how many people still need an encyclopedist’s knowledge to get a job?

Among the answers may be the change in our community colleges.  This article in the National Journal discusses changes in Florida’s community college system.  The FCS (formerly the Florida Community College System) has offered a small number of four-year degrees in fields such as nursing, teaching and computer engineering technology for about a decade. FCS institutions don’t offer liberal arts degrees, and can’t offer programs that directly compete with those at nearby universities.  However, in Florida as in Washington state , community college graduates are able to go on to state universities, and FCS baccalaureate programs honor this structure by requiring students to complete an associate’s degree before applying.

So far, unlike university students, FCS bachelor’s degree seekers have skewed toward working adults seeking a credential that will lead to a promotion or a new career.  These students do as well in their careers as students who attend traditional four years schools (READMORE about FCS). 

Are these degrees valid?  That is a very difficult issue.  I have written a lot on THE Ave about why I worry about Western Governor’s University.  As an non profit, WGU  escapes the scrutiny focused on for profits.  However, WGU functions suspiciously like a diploma mill, giving degrees on a pass fail basis with no faculty teaching or oversight.   I suspect that the validity of a WGU degree will end up being vetted in the marketplace when employers find out if the WGU degree in nursing or IT is as valid as one given by for profit rivals, e.g The University of Phoenix, systems like the FCS or our own community colleges.  Hopefully, I am wrong about WGU.   It is also possible that the degrees being given by WGU are nothing more than certificates that allow already capable students to get the pieces of paper they need to qualify for jobs.

What does this mean for the elite public colleges like the UW?  Degrees from truly brand-name institutions, like those in the Ivy League, do pay off, however it is difficult to know whether that success reflects the quality of an elite education, the talent of students accepted to elite schools, or the greater privileges of the families these students come from.

Public “Ivies” are a different case because we, presumably serve a broader socio economic spectrum.  However, we do overlap with these new sorts of colleges in that we train teachers, IT managers, nurses, etc.  The question, especially I an era when many of our students get their pre professional training in the same community colleges that now offer professional degrees, is whether the extra expense of a UW degree adds value?

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  1. Roger Rabbit #

    Too many people now think of colleges and universities as trade schools. The broad purpose of a college education should be to teach students how to think, find and analyze information, solve problems, and communicate. Universities also impart and develop higher-order skills in math, science, engineering, medicine, etc. They’re also a gathering place for people whose job is to simply think. I can’t see a community college producing a Higgs bosun discoverer.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    Many people now think of colleges and universities as trade schools whose only function is to train people for jobs. This mentality is especially prevalent among conservatives who mock the value of cultural studies and music and art degrees. Historically, college education has been fundamentally different from vocational training. Its broad purpose was to teach students how to think; and, more specifically, how to find and analyze information, solve problems, and communicate. Universities also impart and develop higher-order skills in math, science, engineering, medicine, etc. I can’t visualize a community college producing a Higgs bosun discoverer.