Is the university degree really doomed?

March 17, 2014

In a Globe and Mail article last Friday, Leah Eichler asks, “Is a degree becoming a drawback?” In what I can only assume was an awkward attempt at humour, she starts with a narrative of how, while de-cluttering their storage room, she and her husband came across a bunch of their framed diplomas. “My husband flippantly suggested”, she writes, “that we should roll one up and smoke it.”

Very funny! Or is it?

Mortarboard hat and convocation parchment

Based primarily on a few anecdotes, Eichler appears all but convinced that the university degree is doomed. To be fair, the article does pose some important questions. It then also answers them promptly at the end through the words of a Western University dropout turned a fledgling entrepreneur: “He acknowledges that the life he has chosen isn’t for everyone and some professional roles require proper education and certification. I wouldn’t want a med-school dropout for a doctor.”

Some professional roles? Well, let me add lawyers, nurses, engineers, teachers, professors, climatologists, physiotherapist, accountants… and so on. Anyone out there looking for a dropout to design the plane for their next flight, or the bridge they plan to drive on, or a lawyer to represent them? And let’s not forget the liberal arts and basic sciences graduates who go on to pursue professional degrees, move the frontiers of our knowledge as scientists and scholars, or enrich our societies as writers and artists.

It has become quite fashionable lately to beat up on universities and university degrees. While a tiny fraction of people in some fields has done well without a university degree, a vast majority of us mortals progress in our professions on the strength of our formal education (interestingly, software engineering-related fields are the only ones mentioned in this article or in the ones it cites).

It is absolutely true that a university degree alone isn’t going to help anyone go very far, especially in a meritocratic system. It is not uncommon to come across graduates who don’t quite have the level of professional skills and knowledge commensurate with their degree. Not all universities around the world are equal, nor are all degrees obtained from them. To state the obvious, not even all graduates with the same degree from the same university are equal. Reasons vary, but an important one among them is the relative emphasis a student places on actual learning versus somehow getting through to the convocation. To state another obvious point, universities can’t magically make them all equal because we are dealing with human beings with different personalities, aptitudes, interests, drives, priorities, etc. And while we are listing the obvious, here is another point: This diversity is not unique to university graduates; not all dropouts turn out to be Bill Gates! Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the percentage that do, compared to the university graduates who go on to succeed?

For those who are seriously pursuing university education with the aim to learn, the opportunities and pay-offs are aplenty. I submit that serious universities are doing a pretty good job of it. So, anecdotal and platitudinous rants of university-bashers aside, the fact remains that the knowledge that is required to succeed in a vast majority of professions does indeed get acquired through the rigours of obtaining a university (or college) education.

That is unlikely to change any time soon.