What’s Your College Degree Worth . . . Today?

College graduation cap sitting on top of a roll of hundred dollar bills

A few months ago, I decided it was time to update my LinkedIn profile. After all, I’d just re-tooled my blog to reflect a new focus on implementing advanced career strategies, and a little spring cleaning seemed in order.

Everything was going smoothly until I looked at my education, a section of the personal profile usually populated by a list of colleges and earned degrees conferring certain—but subjectively vague—status in a particular profession, field, or specialty.

I get that. For some, it’s a place to start. A formal education. The foundation of a professional, well-rounded career.

Not wanting to appear conspicuous because of its absence, I began to review and update my own educational accomplishments. I didn’t get very far before I began to question how untimely that seemed.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the education I’d received some forty years ago had anything to do with who I am today. I remember one of my more progressive engineering professors stating that fifty percent of everything we were learning would be obsolete in ten years. Today, our educational half-life has accelerated to make a two-year return on anything we learn a pretty good investment.

Which brings me back to my inferred question about my own formal education—what’s it worth today, after forty years?

Maybe it reflects the fact I had the discipline, the skill set, or the behavioral flexibility to complete the degree requirements. Or that my personal desire to continue learning beyond state-mandated minimums is a positive character trait. I’m not sure, unless there’s something to the old adage that hardship does, in fact, build character. If that’s true, then I built plenty of it.

Pursing my education as my income would allow, I opted for the 2-1-2 plan: two years of school, one year of full-time work, then completing the last two years of classes in a dead-heat for the finish line. During those last two years at Arizona State, I never saw the inside of a bar, restaurant, or movie theater. I photocopied textbooks, wrote on both sides of every sheet of paper, and scrounged the library for forgotten ballpoints. Jobs were so scarce in the summer between my junior and senior year, I painted house numbers on street curbs at five bucks a crack. I started my senior year without a clue how I would handle second semester expenses, until my adviser pointed me in the direction of the financial aid office. I don’t remember the exact amount of my student loan, but it was enough to get me through graduation.

The experience begs the question, “Was it worth it?”

Sad college graduate

At the time, I thought it was. As a young man, I believed in the idea that, if I followed the traditional route of getting an advanced education, found the right company to work for, then dedicated myself to career advancement, I’d be secure, comfortable, and yes . . . even happy.

But as I look back through forty years with a lot of hindsight, I see glaring flaws in my logic.

The usual argument that college bestows the necessary credentials for consideration as a worthy job candidate doesn’t fly with me. Long before my senior year, I’d already worked a variety of jobs—an engineering technician at Mountain Bell, civilian instrumentation tech at the Army Yuma Proving Grounds, radio disc-jockey, carpet layer, cantaloupe packer, mobile home setter, grocery clerk, stock boy, and one of the best damn curb painters in Yuma, Arizona. So in my mind, I was already a qualified contender to trade my time for money.

Admittedly, my degree generated plenty of job offers, but after spending fourteen years in the corporate world, I was miserably successful—the proverbial square peg determined to fit in an ill-suited round hole. So in 1987, I cut the corporate umbilical to become a full-time entrepreneur.

So in getting back to my original question, I’m not sure what my educational background brings to the party, especially one as dated as mine. I suppose if I ignore the elapsed time and its effect in terms of declining value, I can find benefit in having learned the basics of the discipline, in acquiring an understanding of theory on which to build practical applications.

But even that would be a stretch. In the world of business, where productivity, results, and profit rule with an iron fist, theory is a pointless distraction. I’ll be the first one to admit, my real education began after leaving the college classroom. Which prompts the question . . .

Is a formal degree still the price of admission to play the game?

Thankfully, no.

Today’s job market is a very different place from the one I faced in the seventies and eighties. Many of the gate-keepers, stereotypes, and stigmas have been eliminated by free-market employment, where consultants, sole proprietors, and couples working out of a spare bedroom can make more than an upper-level executive at a Fortune 500 company.

In short, entrepreneurship has leveled the playing field. No longer considered a diminished opportunity for the less qualified or a Plan B “fallback” for those unable to find a job at a “status” firm, self-employment is often the preferred choice for many who can’t wait to strike out on their own.

This kind of enlightened thinking has also changed the significance of a formal generalist education—especially the type delivered in a traditional classroom setting. The internet is a learning tool without equal, and it’s quickly replacing the ivy-covered halls of prestigious universities as the preferred source for a practical, exploitable education. Unless your profession of choice is one of the very few requiring regimented, monitored tutoring—medicine, for example—the return on the investment necessary to generate a college transcript is becoming increasingly hard to calculate.

Acquiring a college education on the internet

Another fortunate shift in the educational mindset is a focus on contemporaneous learning—making the effort to stay current with new information affecting our technology, our environment, and ourselves. By placing our emphasis on an industry-specific education, we increase the likelihood of more people making a personal contribution to their field or specialty, as well as expanding the opportunity to take more active roles in innovative advancements.

So what did I finally decide to include on my educational profile? I’m leaving the majority of my scholastic accomplishments in the past. Not as mysteries to be uncovered, but as an indication to look elsewhere—to more recent and relevant history. Maybe the touchstones and benchmarks from the last few years will present enough commonality to motivate others to share their thoughts and ideas with me. I hope so. It’s not only been a large part of my continuing education, but ultimately, has made the journey a lot more interesting.