September 21 2012
by Scott Johnson

A college “degree” is an anachronism.

What good is a college degree?  If you read the popular press, a college diploma increases your earning potential dramatically.  To me, this is a lot of correlation without much causality.  Is it really the degree that made the difference?  Perhaps most of the income effect derives from the fact that the people that got the degree were likely to have higher income regardless.

This is more true than ever in a world with free, high quality online courses.  Lets compare two similar students side-by-side looking forward instead of backward.  Jane pursues a traditional degree, and Jennifer opts for online EdX courses soon to be released from Harvard and MIT while she works to gain experience and make a little money.


Obviously Jennifer is on a better trajectory, and when studies are done 20 years hence they will correlate income more with skills and attributes of the individual, not a particular level of degree.  A big downside for Jennifer is that she won’t be able to go to most graduate schools, which for now require a degree.  Employers, on the other hand, ask about degrees, but primarily seek good employees with experience who work hard and show initiative like Jennifer.  That piece of paper with a degree on it Jane has?  Well, if it were from a top-tier school then it has value; such a degree opens otherwise closed doors with incalculable benefits.  But from a lesser-known school, when education was less costly then it made some sense, but with the debt load now required there is no rational justification for the expense.


September 25 2012
by Catherine

I’m not sure I understand the comparison you’re drawing. Are you comparing today’s reality (Jane) with an ideal world where employers would offer internships with prospects for advancement to high school graduates who cannot get into top-tier schools (Jennifer)? Or are you saying Jennifer’s world exists now? I’m skeptical of the latter, not having seen much evidence that employers are enthusiastic about investing in training employees.

On the bright side, at, Dana Goldstein at has an article on Northern European apprenticeship models:

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