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Measuring the Value of a Degree and the Purpose of College

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Part I of my conversations with students at six colleges and universities about the future of higher ed happened to appear the same day there was yet another announcement that has the potential to chip away at the legacy system. The biggest name brand in higher ed, Harvard University, announced that it was joining MITx, the online platform that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started in December to offer free courses to the masses.

You can see complete coverage of the new edX effort by my colleagues at The Chronicle of Higher Education here. But one piece of the plan I wanted to mention is that Harvard and MIT plan to offer certificates of completion. That's similar to what other institutions, such as Stanford and Michigan, are doing with their massive courses.

What happens to the value of the college degree when top universities are essentially giving away some of their courses free? That was the essence of a question that I posed to some of the students in my travels recently, and it touched off a wide-ranging discussion about how you calculate the value of a degree between different institutions and the purpose of college.

College is about the networked, maturing experience. The conversations around the point of a college education didn't yield widespread agreement among the students. Typically, they split along campus lines: At Franklin & Marshall College, students thought the goal of college was to get a broad education, while at Southern New Hampshire University, many saw the education as a means to the end, a job. At Georgetown, about a quarter of the 18 students in the room raised their hand when I asked if the purpose of college is to get a job.

To some, the point of college is to develop a network for life, an ideal not easily replicated online. "Sure, there's Facebook and LinkedIn," one senior at Arizona State University told me. "But you build those networks by being on a physical campus."

Several of the traditional-age students talked about the maturing process that happens during college -- this was especially true of the seniors on the verge of graduation. "My purpose in coming here was to get a job, but now I realize it was to grow as a person," said one student at Southern New Hampshire. "I wasn't ready for work at 18."

At Franklin & Marshall, one student was passionate in his defense of the liberal arts when I asked about how a major in government and a minor in philosophy will help him when it comes to finding a job. "This is the sort of place where the core values of being a good employee are cultivated and held to the highest regard," he said. "We are not limited in our thinking and we have a whole host of options. People will recognize that as valuable in the work force. If there are employers who don't see that, they are not looking for the right type of person."

The degree still matters. That's probably not surprising to most of us, but with all the talk about badges and Google hiring workers directly from the massive online course taught by Sebastian Thrun, I was curious to see if these students were interested in alternative credentials. They were not. "I always had it in my head that I'd go to school and get a degree," said one student at Valencia College. "Before I came to Valencia, I worked as a corrections officer and made a lot of money. But I knew that I still needed that degree."

For at least these students, the college degree is still the best signal to the job market that they're ready for the work force. But given rising tuition prices, how much longer will students see the value in going to any college, at any cost? Nearly all of the students I talked with were taking on debt to finance their education. Some could total it up to the dollar; others could only give general estimates. Except for the seniors, few of them were worrying about how they are going to pay back the loans.

I asked them looking back if they were to give advice to themselves as high-school students how would they compare the return on investment between institutions and determine the value of where they ended up. Again, the answers were divided along campus lines and few pointed to any specific tool that would help them crunch some numbers and come to a specific answer. The students at Valencia and the University of Central Florida talked about the value of convenience and cost. The F&M students talked about the value of small classes and the ability to be peers with faculty members. And the Georgetown students talked about the value of a name brand and the alumni network. "All you have to do is walk into these big companies and see the events they're having for Georgetown alumni. Fifty people show up. They don't have these events for small schools," said one student. "The alumni network is one of the things we're really paying for."

As I mentioned yesterday, this wasn't meant to be a scientific survey. My sample missed two major players in higher ed, the for-profits and online universities, and it didn't include enough adult students. But I believe the students I did talk with are a pretty good representation of those in college today because they attend institutions across the spectrum of higher ed. At Southern New Hampshire, for instance, I met with students in the College Unbound program, a three-year degree where mostly first-generation students who might not have gone to college otherwise design their own learning plans around internships.

Of course, for these students, the future is now. They understand a college ecosystem that has changed very little in generations. The question remains whether those right behind them in high school and middle school will share the same values or be willing to pay the price.