Life Without a Degree

Posted on juin 28th, by Paul M. in Hacking education. No Comments

…You could say it’s a bit like crossing a boarder without having gotten permission; there’s a big chance you could get thrown out. A recent example is the resigning of Yahoo’s general director, Scott Thompson, guilty of lying about having a degree in computer science on his CV. Behind this exceptional fact is the idea that a degree has become a prerequisite for entering into the job market… but is that true?

Geniuses without diplomas

It is useful to recall certain brilliant individuals who managed to get by without a degree; Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs are three individuals who never completed their university education. Some great ideas can’t wait, and we can’t blame them.

It is very rare, however, that one can boast of a revolutionary idea that they constructed in their garage. With these examples, it seems degrees are not as necessary as they used to be. The « anti-degree movement » seems to be re-enforced now a days, and on the bench of backers, we find a very familiar face, especially here in Quebec: debt.

In the United States, where the cost of education is reaching incredible heights, the educational path for students seems as much of a chance as it is a financial burden. Recall that it has only been eight years since President Obama and his wife finished paying off their student loans! In Europe, where school is generally much less expensive, another problem that has appeared: Youths, who have their degrees, are finding it more and more difficult to enter into the job market. The reason for this is because the amount of people who have degrees has increased to the point where a degree is worth much less as compared to a generation ago. Educational inflation.


So, a life without a degree… “It’s possible!” says Peter Thiel, founder of the online payment site, PayPal and the head of a foundation that finances non-degree students, the Thiel Fellowship. The program “20 Under 20” gives out about 20 bursaries, valued at $100,000, to youth who have decided not to go to university for the two years and be part of the Fellowship program. To get in, the youth propose a project for which they need the funding and, if chosen, will receive professional advice and counseling in order to create and complete their work.

The P. Thiel project can be, and has been, criticized about many things, (like its exclusivity to new technology, its orientation towards the elite, etc.), but one thing that it cannot be criticized for is the debate that it has created about the value of degrees issued by educational institutions. The first argument is economic: the magnitude of the student debt bubble has now passed the trillion dollar mark. If current debt payments default, the next generation could see yet another huge U.S. economic recession.

Even more sinister, the financing of graduate students installs a customer relationship well described by Richard Arum, sociologist at New York University:

“When universities require that students pay such amounts, they begin to treat students as customers. Rather than investing in creating solid, well founded lessons, they offer beautiful rooms, sport facilities and… a nice passing grade to keep the consumer happy. If you look at the amount of hours spent studying, the United States is at the bottom of the ladder, just ahead of the Slovaks. We have the best doctorates, but the rest of the system lives off of this reputation. We’re headed for a wall”. (translated from Le Monde, 28.05)

« It will cost you $200,000 to put me through university and grad school. If you invest that money instead, I can retire at age 18! »—Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen

Our current system is based on an idea, established in the 19th century, of obtaining a degree of knowledge in a single subject (ex. having a degree in biology, literature, chemistry, etc.) with no room for interdisciplinary mingling. We teach them what we know. While it is a safe path, there is not much opportunity for risk and innovation. With such a rigid system, probably more prevalent in European universities, students have to obtain more degrees to be considered officially proficient in other subjects. Getting multiple degrees is difficult as it takes too much time and money in a era where rapid adaptation is necessary.

Not getting a degree? … still not recommended

There’s no denying that school is a place to gain excellent knowledge. It provides a wide range of necessary resources that satisfies both personal quests for knowledge as well as knowledge needed for perusing vocational opportunities. Schools provide wonderful and powerful tools for learning (well structured courses, social networks etc.). For example, we cannot talk about Silicon Valley without talking about Stanford, however, it is vital to question the real value of a traditional classroom approach and identify the risks for future generations.

The latest educational tools

This reflection can be seen especially in Quebec. Where some people are taking the protesting of the tuition hike to be only about money, others are making it a protest about the entire education system… a question to keep in mind if and when a debate on the subject of university arises.

To think about:

Do you have a university degree? Did it help you get a job? Will you foresee needing to get some kind of a degree?


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Also, check out our Crazy Learning Project. Deadline is tomorrow, so don’t miss out on the fun!

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