Goodbye college diplomas

Disrupting Class assumes we'll continue to need college degrees to get the best paying jobs and to enter the current professions. the improvements in elementary and school programs from the disruptive innovations mentioned in the book seem valuable if college degrees remain essential. However, I am very suspicious that diplomas will be worth anything in a decade or so. Here's why:
  1. It's been predicted that the current graduates will experience seven different careers in their lifetime. Their diploma will credential them for the first career. If they got an education as well as a degree, they might be prepared for a second career, but the proof of graduation will not prove they can handle the vast changes in how we live, work, pay for goods and contribute to our communities.
  2. College degrees are proof that students have been prepared for known jobs. Current industries and corporate employment are stabilized by the supply of petroleum and the global financial markets. There's nothing on the horizon to presume those will remain in their current condition for much longer. When oil runs into irreversible shortages, and oil exporting nations become failed states, everything changes. Multinational corporations will experience shrinking markets, assets in jeopardy of violent destruction and other instabilities. Exporting manufacturers and agricultural producers will also have a new playing field for their endeavors.
  3. The industrial era is coming to an end. Our planet cannot long endure the abuses of resource extractions, aquifer depletion, soil erosion, global warming and over-harvesting of useful life forms. Educations to perpetuate the abuses and conspiratorial policies, governments and financial institutions -- will soon be obsolete. Meanwhile we will make significant advances in healing without pharmaceuticals, agriculture without applied pesticides or fertilizers, micro lending to individuals in poverty, and entrepreneurship without the staggering failure rate.
  4. There have been economies of scale and other justifications for big business while information was scarce and difficult to move around. Big universities, lecture halls and graduating classes made sense too. Big college campuses prepared graduates for big companies, agencies and institutions. With the ubiquitous supply of instant information, it's now possible to transform economies into networked, distributed intelligence, democratized production/distribution and bottom-up initiatives. Peer to peer (P2P) production will mostly replace centralized, privatized, deregulated mechanisms. Small will be beautiful and difficult to comprehend for grads of Big U who worked for the Big Corporation to pay off their Big Debt.
With all this in mind, college dropouts appear savvy to me. They sense the future is not prepared for by more of the same expertise. They imagine how college could be a waste of their time and their costly diploma a useless document. That does not mean they know what to do or how to proceed -- only what to avoid and hold in suspicion of bogus value.


  1. HI, Tom,

    Your money line: "That does not mean they know what to do or how to proceed -- only what to avoid and hold in suspicion of bogus value."

    It has been apparent to me for some time that the one institution that is the least in touch with what young people really need is education. I would go as far to say that they are more inward-focused than the largest corporations due, in part, to:

    a. Public entities being funded by tax money
    b. Private entities being funded by parents who will pay anything to give their kids "a competitive edge."

    Note: I am a former teacher and college administrator.

    I spent last weekend in a conversation with a 26 year-old who lamented the perceived worthlessness of her degree, with honors. She noted that she no doubt got her job interview as a result of having the degree, but her success has been based on emotional intelligence, adaptability, and problem solving. Not content.

    While there are professions--engineering, medicine, law--that require heavy content, the current university system is an inefficient and expensive method of delivery. You lay out nicely some of the other attendant factors that seem to be going unnoticed or at least unchallenged.

    It is my educated hunch that the combination of economic factors, assertive young people, and reality-based revenue streams will eventually turn the tide.

    Keep writing...hope all is well out there.

  2. Hi Steve:
    It's great to hear from you again. Thanks for all these insights and sharing the despair of the recent college grad.

    Like you, I've been an insider to colleges and pondered why the institutions are not more business-minded. Campuses appear to be serving students as customers with their housing, food service, athletic activities, concerts, health spas etc. The Dean of Students has a clue. But the academic side is still beholden to accreditation requirements, research grant money, publish or perish pressures on seekers of tenure, archaic concepts of academic rigor, empirical validity and objective evaluations of student performance. Combined with effects of tax money and ambitious parents you mention, forces that perpetuate the status quo are monstrous. Perhaps the recession will disrupt their persistent complacency and provoke a rethinking of how colleges would really prepare students for the changing world.

    In wondering what to look forward to, your phrase says it all: "reality-based revenue streams".
    Thanks Steve!

  3. This is really interesting. Some of the problems in educational institution come from the administration that has copied the successful model of administration from corporations whose main job is producing widgets such as GM producing cars. When we institute the same measure of assessment to measure the success of learning we get into trouble because learning process is not a neat and crisp phenomenon such as manufacturing a car, where we can create objective statistical measure based upon the defects data collected over a period of time.

    Actually it has become quite fashionable to beat up on teachers for all the problems in education.

    Finally, the educational institution have a responsibility to certify the student's knowledge. It is a service they provide to the employers so that they the prospective employers do not have to test every single applicant or go through large number of applicants to find one hidden gem of an employer out of let us say a million applicant.

    Contrary to the popular belief that people get paid for providing the information the truth is that most of the information is already out there and motivated individuals can dig it up if they really need it but people are not that motivated leaving few exceptional individual aside. They the modern consumer want everything neatly packaged in many different flavors. So in a consumer oriented society why acquisition of knowledge or learning should be any different or the process of providing it. After all economic theory tells us that consumers are intelligent and will always act in their best self interest to select the best product on the market.

    Also, too much information causes brain neurons to start misfiring leading to no knowledge acquisition and retention and sifting through too much information is time consuming and a dull and boring activity. Therefore, there will always be need for people who will sift through tons of information and who will package it for general consumption. Be it for learning or entertainment, the twin uses of information and media.

    Article like these are interesting because they get a rise out of the readers like me who got prompted to write a note like this but they do absolutely nothing in changing the status quo because the solution they propose is seductive but not impractical.

  4. Thanks for adding so many great insights here. The link to your post on blaming didn't work, but I'm aware of the pattern you describe. It's the nature of anyone's ego to point fingers at others without any fingers pointing back. The college years are a time for strengthening ego, not losing it - so blaming others abounds. Ego strengthening underlies much economic behavior where the self interest is best served by getting approval from authority figures, a greater quantity of admirers and an accumulation of cred to impress others with. All that plays into the enduring value of college educations.

    The value you describe colleges providing at credentialing employment candidates is especially necessary when there are slots to be filled by an HR Dept. Smaller enterprises are more concerned with F2F skills, interest in the employer and impressions made in the interview process. The value instructors provide in preventing "information overload" is especially significant when taking lots of semester long courses simultaneously. That gateway or filtering service is less valuable in contexts of self selected, paced and structured learning.

    You're right that no changes comes from thought leaders, expanded idea spaces or prophetic voices directly. Within Christensen's disruption model, the changes come about by launching a new venture serving non-consumers separate from the incumbent provider and its customers.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comment back. Educational enterprise will change but the pace of change will be evolutionary rather revolutionary. After all it is one of the main pillars of the society.

    The link should work now.
    Beat up on Teachers it makes us feel good

  6. Your welcome Javed. The link worked - thanks. Blaming the teachers may get people's attention, but it also backfire, as you're suspecting.

    Technological advances are both evolutionary and revolutionary. Camcorders evolved dramatically while they cratered home movie cameras. Cassette tape players moved up a steep learning curve while they devastated reel to reel players. Desktop publishing software evolved through numerous versions while it took out the typesetting industry.

    I'm not expecting colleges to completely vanish. Steve's point above about content-rich professional studies (law, medicine, engineering, etc) may preserve this pillar of society. Small colleges with intimate class settings are likely to flourish as we evolve into more social, situational, conversational and interactive models of learning.