GUTENBERG DIPLOMA

A recent report suggests that having a degree from a for-profit college is as good as having no degree at all on the job market. These schools usually offer most or all of their instruction online. This convenience, combined with their reputation for a lack of academic rigor, have made for-profits very popular with working adults seeking career advancement.

I'm on record as being stridently anti-online education and highly skeptical of for-profit colleges in general. Nonetheless I think they have entered the educational arena to serve a valid purpose. I think online degrees are great for anyone who needs an M.A. – any M.A., from anywhere – for career advancement. Cops, military, government bureaucrats, teachers…often they need to show a credential to move up the payscale. So if you want to get a pay-and-print Master's from Strayer University because you can't get bumped up to G-11 without it, great. It's a practical solution to a practical problem.

These degrees understandably lack prestige, though. That is irrelevant if you're only concerned with fulfilling a credential requirement at your workplace. However, online schools have grown rapidly and roped in a lot of working adults (and more traditional college-aged students too) with the pretense of getting a degree for the purpose of being more attractive on the open job market. This is patently silly – everyone knows that a degree from a college that advertises how quickly and cheaply they can sell you one is worth its weight in paper. As the data in this new report show, employers do not think terribly highly of Kaplan University Online when they see it on a resume. Nor should they.

If you actually need or want to learn anything, it goes without saying that an online degree program is going to do about as much for you as reading up on your favorite subjects online in your spare time.

For-profit colleges are the free market response to creeping credentialism. Employers demand degrees for jobs that do not actually require a college degree to do. They make completing post-graduate coursework a requirement for advancement or pay raises (K-12 education is really big on this, hence grade school teachers are a booming market for online schools) even if that coursework is of low quality and does little to improve one's ability to do the job. The new economy is a buyer's market and employers use college degrees as a way to quickly whittle down mountains of applications into manageable piles. And for the un- or under-employed, paying for more school and more degrees is pitched as the obvious solution to their predicament by universities, employers, and the political system alike.

Academia as a whole should do a better job of being upfront and honest with potential students; for-profits are especially deceptive, though. It will be interesting to see in the next decade if this bubble bursts as potential students figure out just how little such degrees are worth on the job market. We already tacitly accept that an online degree program doesn't actually teach you anything, and this fact does not limit their appeal in some circles as long as they continue to be cheap, easy, and convenient. But if we add "worthless" to that equation, even a cheap online degree doesn't make much sense.

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39 Responses to “GUTENBERG DIPLOMA”

  1. FMguru Says:

    Worth their weight in paper? No. Worth their weight in electrons – maybe.

  2. Dbp Says:

    In a lot of places a real degree isn't worth much more than it's weight in paper. If you combine the flood of college grads with the decreasing willingness of employers to do even basic training, degrees barely suffice as a method for whittling down contestants….I mean applicants. Most of the decent job openings I can find seem to be saying "you must have had this exact job before, but stopped having it for reasons that don't make you undesirable."

  3. Xynzee Says:

    I realised "credentialism" had gotten out of hand a few years ago when I saw an ad for a DBA—Doctorate of Bus. Admin. I could only think, now that all the sneeches have stars on their bellies, now you have to have two stars to be special.

    It's also a sign that we're moving further away from where people actually produce things, ie trades, towards a hand job and haircut economy. But then America has always had something against those who actually work for a living.

    Most people would be better served by going into a trade. It explains half of your rants about "students these days". Historically, Billy Bob would have gone to learn a trade—and done quite well—and Tanya-Belle would have gone to become a beautician or PA. Neither would have racked up stupid debt levels, and gone to have pretty decent lives. Instead, you have people who have little to no academic interest who judge the school by its climbing walls and hot tubs.

    The pathetic thing is that the majority of employers don't realise that they are just being stupid and missing out on people who actually can bring benefit to the role and company. Sure a basic "skill/knowledge" level is required for a job, but nothing beats keenness and interest in the job. There were people who were far better qualified than I am for my job, but the fact I could hit the ground running with simple solutions during the interview phase got me the gig.

  4. Arslan Says:

    Meh. I just decided to go with the technique known as "lying on your resume." Most people, after speaking with me, assume that I have at least a Master's in history, if not a Phd, so it's no big deal for me to claim a BA.

  5. Major Kong Says:

    You also need 2 years experience coding a piece of software that's only existed for six months.

  6. Anonymouse Says:

    @MajorKong, you'd better believe it. As my industry is wrapping up it's big proposal season, I find I'm really, really weary of RFPs that demand 10 years of experience in a bit of software that's only existed for 3 years, for a job whose pay rate is barely above McDonald's. Our customer has completely lost their minds. Even worse, should we find the mythical unicorn with all the qualifications that's willing to work for sandwich-shop wages, they'll find themselves sitting side-by-side with customers who can't even spell the name of the software–which they don't care about anyway because they're busy planning what vacation to go on with their 8 weeks of annual leave, or what conference to attend on work time.

  7. JD Says:

    @Xynzee

    It's a chicken and egg thing, though. Credential list him he is prevalent enough in our economy that everyone who is motivated to advance their career goes out and gets her degree. It's hard to find a motivated person who stopped after high school.

  8. skyskier Says:

    "as potential students figure out just how little such degrees (for-profits) are worth on the job market. "

    I don't know about this. There is a huge advertising machine behind the idea of getting a great job after attending Kaplan or Phoenix. Everything I've seen tells the potential applicants how much better their lives will be after getting that degree. As if this will unlock some mysterious universe of happiness. If it has not sunk in how not-competitive these degrees are on the open market, I don't think some report will change that.

  9. maurinsky Says:

    I am enrolled at an online non-profit college to get my BS, because if I had to attend classes in person, it would take me much, much longer. This is a school that has been in operation since the early 70s, specifically created to help working adults get their degrees while they are still working – it used to be via correspondence. I don't think it's any less educational than the classes I attended in person, but my thoughts on colleges in general are that they provide a series of hoops you must jump through in order to get the credentials that are required for a moderate entry-level job. I know there are some great schools where great thoughts are thought and great discussions are had, but the best I could have afforded was a State school which was a series of hoops to jump through.

  10. Sarah Says:

    A big part of the appeal for online education is saving money on gas, but also for people who work in soul-sucking jobs where managers don't give a shit about their employees to the point where those employees can't make plans for their lives more than a few days in advance (and they know damn well they can be replaced by another human who's willing to work for less and demand less with regard to personal human dignity–or by A MACHINE, see the "humans need not apply" video I posted recently) being able to go to school online solves those problems. And the advertising for online education makes it look fantastic–get your degree on your own time! Frontline had a fantastic documentary called "College, Inc." that should be required viewing for every high school junior and senior. Netflix had it for streaming, but not anymore; Amazon might have it.

  11. David Says:

    Due to rising productivity coupled with automation we have two real options: (1) decrease the standard work-week from 40 hours to 30 or even 20 or (2) accept a high level of un/under-employment thereby creating a growing class or poor to help sustain increasing profits of the 1%. America has chosen option 2 because option 1 would require things like universal healthcare and housing assistance paid for by increased taxes on the 1%. Even though option 1 would create a more stable and equitable economy and society, because it would cut a small percentage of the ginormous wealth of the 1% they won't even consider it. After all that fifth house ain't gonna pay for itself.

  12. Benny Lava Says:

    I was hoping that, based on the title, that this post was about getting the equivalent of a B.A. from reading free ebooks from project Gutenberg. Darn.

  13. HeidiB Says:

    We're conflating two things: for-profit an online. Those of us who live In the Middle of Nowhere and enjoy having food, clothing, and shelter consider online schools, many of them at respected universities, as a way to keep our current jobs and get B.A.'s or M.A.'s to get ahead. Online doesn't equal for-profit.

  14. grumpygradstudent Says:

    I'm highly skeptical that in-person non-profit college offers much in the way of actual education, either. The difference seems to be that employers still believe in it's value as a sorting heuristic.

    I firmly believe in the signalling theory of education instead of the human capital theory. Employers don't value college degrees because the degrees reflect any particular body of knowledge; they value degrees because it means they don't have to work as hard at sorting applicants.

    College is a four-year circle jerk designed to impart a credential and to provide corporate welfare in the form of subsidized employment searching to America's private employers. Learning is about 10th on the priority list for all parties involved.

  15. Emerson Dameron Says:

    Someone had to step in and drive down the price of a "real" degree.

  16. Mark H. Says:

    Let's be honest. The only reason these online places exist is to get students on the hook for loans they cannot get out from under except by dying.

    If the government ever cracks down on that (and I'm skeptical about that), the online colleges will immediately start withering away.

  17. c u n d gulag Says:

    Back when I was an Adjunct Professor in the mid-to-late 90's, and a guy who used to work in HR, I used to tell my students that out in the business world, no one really cared what your GPA was, unless you were at the top of your class.

    What a college degree demonstrated to potential employers, is that when attending, you went to classes reasonably often, and completed tasks in the period of time granted to do them.

    In other words, you showed up, and did the work.

    And that's what employers used to value – because they would often do the final training for whatever jobs were available, based on the individual applicants potential particular skill-skills.

    I don't know what they're looking for now – except to save themselves the expenses of hiring and training people. And hiring and training new ones, if they earlier ones didn't work out for whatever reason.

    It looks like they want you fully trained on their job(s), or else they'll keep looking for someone who is.

    And the downward spiral keeps drawing down into the shitter's drain.

  18. NonyNony Says:

    Nonetheless I think they have entered the educational arena to serve a valid purpose. I think online degrees are great for anyone who needs an M.A. – any M.A., from anywhere – for career advancement. Cops, military, government bureaucrats, teachers…often they need to show a credential to move up the payscale.

    But this is stupid. Either the jobs that require continuing ed require a real commitment to keeping your skills up to date or they don't. If they don't, then eliminate the requirement for promotion because requiring it is just causing a money drain – either from your employee's pockets or – if it is reimbursed – from the employer themselves. If they do, then having a McDegree from an online university whose standards are sketchy isn't worthwhile at all.

  19. Steve in the ATL Says:

    "Employers don't value college degrees because the degrees reflect any particular body of knowledge; they value degrees because it means they don't have to work as hard at sorting applicants."

    This is a popular criticism, but I haven't seen it in the various large companies I've worked for. Hiring managers want relevant experience for experienced hires; after your first job, the college degree is one line at the end of your resume. Lots of potential flaws get overlooked if a candidate can hit the ground running.

    For first jobs, the degree does make a difference for some of the reasons Mr. Gulag names, and also because a degree indicates a certain level of mental training such as analyzing and synthesizing large amounts of data and a certain level of learning to interact with others outside of the highly structured world of high school.

    From what I have seen in the corporate world, the academic pedigree means very little, with two exceptions: great schools and online or for profit schools. Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford helps you; Strayer/Kaplan/U of Phoenix hurts you. Everything in between is neutral, from Vanderbilt to Central Michigan or whatever.

  20. Robert Says:

    I started my civil service career as a college dropout, and made it to twenty four years. From the reactions when I left, I did a good job.

    If, by some hideous Lovecraftian set of circumstances, I had to apply for that same job again, the lack of a B.A. would automatically disqualify me.

    (Full disclosure: when I started, I was typing up purchase orders in septuplicate on NCR forms. By the time I finished, it was completely online and massively more documented. My point remains.)

  21. Alan C Says:

    I have a co-worker who got a criminal justice degree from University of Phoenix. (This is a fingerprint examiner for a police agency.) Can't speak to the quality of the degree, but she's very good at her job. In one trial where she was an expert witness, she was being cross-examined on her qualifications by the defense attorney. At one point he said, "It's not a real university–they don't even have a football team!" I think the prosecution objected to that and it was sustained.

  22. Skipper Says:

    In my experience, requiring a degree for a job is, in many cases, a way for lazy and/or incompetent HR people to sort resumes into piles, rather than really evaluate them.

    I got one job after the hiring manager went through several piles of applications provided him by HR. He found no one suitable. Then, he asked HR for all the resumes they had. He saw mine and hire me. had he relied on HR to evaluate, I would have been out in the cold.

    When I was a hiring manager, I found that HR's evaluation of a candidate was almost 180 degrees from mine. They didn't have a clue.

    As far as online courses, besides providing credentials, they are also good at training versus education. If you need to learn fingerprint examining (as Alan C mentioned), the latest programming language, or anything else that doesn't require a lot of critical analysis, they're probably fine.

    However, in academic courses, I've found that classroom interaction between student and teacher and among students, as well as face-to-face interaction outside the classroom was an important part of the educational process. When I was an undergrad, we often learned more arguing in the snack bar or over a beer than we did during the lectures. (Do people do that any more?)

    One problem is that, even in brick-and-mortar colleges, many students are there to get credentials. I taught for years as adjunct faculty and I often had the feeling that many students would pay extra if you could give them their diploma the second day of school.

    I guess it was all summed up by one of my students (I taught a required course) who on the last day of class, slammed her book shut and said, "There, that's the last book I'll ever have to read for the rest of my life."

  23. maurinsky Says:

    @Skipper says: n my experience, requiring a degree for a job is, in many cases, a way for lazy and/or incompetent HR people to sort resumes into piles, rather than really evaluate them.

    A applied for a job a couple of years ago, I had been referred to this job by a friend of mine who works for this company. They had over 400 applicants for the job, which was a fairly low paying administrative assistant position. They put all the ones with degrees on top. I'm not sure anyone ever looked at mine, since many companies routinely do not contact people who've submitted resumes unless they are considering you for the position.

  24. Anonymouse Says:

    @Skipper: re: beer in the snack bar.

    I'm pretty sure the drinking age in every state is now 21, which means the undergrad beer drinking is done in secret, not openly in the snack bar or school cafe. I started college two months after my state raised the drinking age to 21 and heard from my professors all about the after-class conversations that used to happen over a pitcher of beer. I was over 21 and working full-time when I went for my Master's: my experience was that the working adults would be pretty exhausted after an 8- or 9-hour day on the job, then a 3-hour class, plus all the commuting. Everyone just wanted to go the heck home at 10 pm so they could get up at 5 and jump on the treadmill.

  25. Anonymouse Says:

    @Alan C: "It's not a real university–they don't even have a football team!" "

    The University of Maryland has just announced that all its "student" athletes who get scholarships will get them for their time at the school, no matter if they play their sport or not (for example, if they're injured one season). What does this mean? For example, the kid who discovered the low-cost, accurate, easy test for pancreatic cancer would be lucky to get admitted, while any old illiterate football player with a criminal record would get a free ride.

  26. grumpygradstudent Says:

    "For first jobs, the degree does make a difference for some of the reasons Mr. Gulag names, and also because a degree indicates a certain level of mental training such as analyzing and synthesizing large amounts of data and a certain level of learning to interact with others outside of the highly structured world of high school."

    Are these really skills that college teaches students, or does completion of college just reveal whether students have these skills innately or not? If the latter, then the "college-as-heuristic" (or signalling) explanation applies.

    I guess I was specifically talking about first jobs, but if those first jobs are required experience for later jobs, then the same logic applies: a college degree is a requirement, and it's a requirement because employers assume anybody who was able to finish college has innate skills, not because they think students LEARNED those skills while in college.

    To say nothing of the fact that what we're SUPPOSED to be teaching students in college is (at least to some extent) subject matter content.

  27. vegymper Says:

    I presume that when employers require a degree (or any credential, in fact) for a job that doesn't require the particular skills that you get at a college, they are just filtering applicants by class/socioeconomical level, to avoid hiring those poor who, just by being poor, can't get any degree. If the poor make the overwhelming financial effort to get a degree, then they will ask for two grades, a MS or PhD, just to keep hiring the privileged and avoid brownish people, ya know.

  28. Mike Says:

    Jd,

    "It's hard to find a motivated person who stopped after high school."

    I stopped after high school, and am very motivated. I scored also very high on the SATs (800 on the verbal of the old SAT, for instance, not quite so good at math) but had no desire to go to college though I could have been admitted to nearly any college I wished to attend.

    In my field, having a college degree often means that the person is 5-10 years behind the times.

    I work in IT, though, which used to not be overly concerned about degrees, but even that is changing.

    I've thought about getting a degree for the creeping credentialism reason alone. I'm ridiculously good at school and could get a BS in MIS in probably 2.5 years if I wanted to, so still considering that option as I might need it for the rest of my career.

    Anyway, most often not attending/completing college is the result of lack of economic opportunity, not of motivation especially with how expensive college has gotten now.

  29. Xynzee Says:

    @Skipper: "In my experience, requiring a degree for a job is, in many cases, a way for lazy and/or incompetent HR people to sort resumes into piles, rather than really evaluate them."

    Aren't: lazy and/or incompetent a tautology in conjunction with HR?

    I try to avoid HR as much as possible as generally they're about as useful as teets on a bull. Especially those that use resume scanners, that parse the application for "key words/phrases". Miss one and no interview for you. Such as the experiences you've described. I've noticed the alarming trend towards "psyche testing" as part of a prerequisite to apply. One organisation I know of was recently purchased by a larger firm. Prior to this they were very friendly and personable company. Now they tell you nothing about the role, ie job description, but you can apply after taking a psyche test. WT…!! The pathetic thing is that, like someone who will work for less, there're enough people who won't call BS on this practice to end it.

    As I said, lazy and incompetent are tautological for HR.

  30. Alex SL Says:

    grumpygradstudent,

    Of course there is a lot of nonsense going on on the job market, but if you think that university is only about signalling I invite you to try your hand at cancer research, astrophysics or architecture and see how well you fare compared to the graduates in those areas.

  31. Major Kong Says:

    I suspect that all these for-profit colleges that have sprung up in recent years are purely a mechanism for channeling student aid to the owners of said colleges.

    At least a degree from a traditional brick-and-mortar has some value, however small it may be.

  32. Giant Monster Gamera Says:

    I have two degrees from one of these "online" universities and 75% of the classes were taken on-ground, in a classroom setting with other students and an instructor, which I preferred over the online format.

    Unfortunately, in most major corporations, if you want to advance in your career (and in some cases, keep your job), a degree is necessary. It's one thing for a healthy young adult to dedicate themselves to a four-year degree when they have no spouse or kids and a part-time job at a pizza shack, and another much more difficult thing for a 30-50 year old adult, who already has a full-time job, and a spouse and kids to do the same thing.

    It's unfair to tag these "for profit" colleges as being "less academic" or "lacking rigor." They serve a purpose for those that could otherwise be frozen out of the job market. The facts they teach are the exact same facts that are taught in a traditional university, however the leverage the work and social skills that the adult students already have in order to accelerate graduation.

  33. Skipper Says:

    I was just wondering how many of the law-enforcement bright lights overseeing the brilliant response to events in Ferguson got promoted using a degree from an online diploma mill. That would be an interesting story.

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  35. moderateindy Says:

    After getting a couple of BS's I am completely of the belief that unless your in the STEM areas, college really only proves that you were responsible enough to go to enough classes, and do enough work to graduate, even though there are many tempting distractions that might keep you from doing so. (Even if you can't refrain from writing run-on sentences)

  36. Slocum Says:

    Moderateindy:
    Its good to see that someone with a BS is deft in applying inferential statistics to his own individual experience. I've never met more people so full of themselves without the capability of making an unbiased and evidence-based argument for the superiority of their kind than STEM grads, especially engineers. That's just my experience though, so I won't say that that I am completely of the belief that STEM grads are narrow-minded, self-important dickheads.

  37. jeneria Says:

    I'm sorry, you don't really understand online education at all. My husband teaches online for Phoenix and the amount of time they must spend in their online courses would make face to face faculty member (such as myself) shrivel. He must engage the students every day and can't be offline for more than 24 hours. He can't take off more than two days in a 7 day period. Work must be graded within 7 days of the due date. They are closely monitored to make sure they are on track. Imagine someone sitting in your class every single session and keeping track of how many Youtube videos you showed, every tangent you went off in lecture, how long you ranted about a current event not related to class. I don't want to teach online because it is more work than teaching a face to face class.

    It's not the for-profits that are fucking up online. It's the brick and mortar schools whose faculty see it as super easy ("I only log in once a month for my online class and ignore emails the rest of the time") and students who see it as super easy and schools that see it as an easy revenue stream without having to do anything but create a shitty online class environment. When done correct, online education is more work for both the student and the faculty member.

  38. moderateindy Says:

    Slocum:
    I know quite a few engineers, and while they can be, as a group, fairly dull, I've never gotten the idea that they were particularly self-important. However, never do any kind of construction project with one. The job will get done correctly, it will just take 3 times longer than it needs to.

    To be fair, one BS is in Hotel Rest Mgmt. Why it is considered a BS is beyond me. The other is in Physics. I never pursued a career in the latter, and barely used the former. (about three years in hotels) I imagine that had I went into physics, I would have found my coursework useful in the real world. Nothing I learned in either my Hotel/ Rest. classes or my marketing classes (I also have a minor in marketing) proved to have any worth in a real job.
    I've never really had a job that truly required a college degree, and I've had management, PR, sales, and sales mgmt positions, all of which you needed to posess a college degree to qualify for.

  39. fabrizio villani Says:

    Depends for which positions they sent the CVs….