Let’s face it, in every industry across the globe, products that were originally ‘bastions of value’ are becoming commoditized. Just look at the price of a computer over the last ten to twenty years – whereas original computers could sell in the high six figures, you can now get one in the low hundreds (and its going even lower, with laptops going for under $100). However, for the most part, these things are good for you – it makes computers, TV’s, electronics, internet access, and many other things cheaper for you – but what happens when something you have previously invested in loses value? Well, I think that’s exactly what is happening – to your degree.
Is Your Degree Really Becoming Commoditized?
Let’s look at what it means for something to become commoditized. The value of a product is usually based of a combination of its usefulness, demand and scarcity. The more useful and scarce a product, the more valuable it inherently becomes, given a flat demand. Now, let’s apply this reasoning to a University/College degree. Keep demand and value constant (I would personally argue that demand is flat, while value has gone down, but that’s neither here nor there). The only moving variable therefore is scarcity – how scarce are degrees? Well, for one thing, attendance to post secondary education is skyrocketing – it has become more of an assumption that an option (due largely to social status pressure).
So as the number of students attending secondary education rises, the shift has gone from the attainment of a degree to the status of the degree. A degree from school A does not equal a degree from school B – at least, in society’s eyes. However, even that approach is losing ground. I am not saying that a degree from Harvard will ever equal a degree from your community college – but what happens when everyone can get a degree from Harvard? It becomes the floor for degrees, and the universal measuring stick. Perhaps one day when everyone can get a degree from Harvard online (or whatever school they choose) it might even make my degree retroactively less valuable. The introduction of technology, and more specifically the internet, has transformed the availability of education. Cost structures have changed, and audiences have been retargeted.
In times come and gone, a degree was a guarantee of a middle class life – at a minimum. A degree resembled an insurance policy against earnings power. Once a degree had been conferred, job opportunities appeared and employment was almost certain. However, those times are changing. We live in the information age, and after all, for the most part that’s all your degree really is – a systematically organized collection of information. Yes, I would agree there is more to a university/college experience then the content of the course (you mature, learn to work in teams, etc.) but that is not what your degree represents – you did not get a degree in working well with others. You receive a degree in a specific discipline, and that degree simple represents to a third party that you have fulfilled the requirements of that discipline.
How the Internet is Changing Education
This started first with the primary education levels – Khan Academy brought all grade courses to the World Wide Web. Students could get a full run through in calculus without attending a single class. That trend has is now making its way to post-secondary. Recently, MIT (arguably one of the top schools worldwide) announced that they would offer MIT courses online free of cost. In their words, “The purpose is to grant an opportunity to everyone in the world to receive a higher education” – the scarcity model is being shaken at its very foundation. You can read the whole article here. That means that one day anyone would be able to take the course content at a prestigious firm like MIT – which means you can’t get a competitive advantage any more from simply having taken those courses.
So, What Can You Do About It?
The first thing to do is to make sure you get more from your academic experience than a transcript – because that is essentially what is being commoditized. Yes, it will be very hard to commoditize the student experience – or at least the parts worth commoditizing, so make sure you are involved on campus, interacting with the student body, and getting more out of your degree than just the marks.
Second, learn to convey yourself beyond your degree – it carries less and less weight in today’s working world. Unless you graduated top of your class during your Harvard MBA, you won’t be turning too many heads. Instead, focus on something that can differentiate you – either during or after school. Be it work experience, volunteer leadership, or something within the community; figure out how you can differentiate yourself in a sustainable way.
Third, take advantage of the one thing that is hard to replicate in online learning – your network. You worked on projects, did assignments and studied for tests with individuals and built a repertoire with them, keeping that alive may be the most useful way to make sure you keep the value of your degree.
Fourth, be aware of the change. Personally, my first full time job required a resume, proof of degree completion and a few other documents. Here’s the kicker: no transcript was requested. While negotiating my second full time job, degree wasn’t even mentioned. It differs industry to industry, but the world is changing – you need to be aware of that change, and adapt to it. It’s not always about what you did, but more what you can do.
The world is changing. Information is becoming more and more accessible every day. Anyone can take the courses that make up a degree, and increasingly, they can take them for free. You need to proactively make sure you are marketing and building the parts of yourself that can’t be commoditized – your experiences, your successes, and your network.