Three Reasons a Degree is Important

“Is a College Degree Worth It?” There are three important reasons the answer is almost always Yes.

A degree is a credential, it communicates important information to the external world. The first reason credentials are important is because employers screen and select new employees based on the credential. Automated resume screening software screens job candidates before an interview. The second reason is one we have explored before. On average, each progression of  accredited degree (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Professional/Ph.D.) produces more life time income than the degree immediately below it. This is true even though some associate’s degrees produce higher income than some bachelor’s degrees.  The third important reason has to do with the motivation of the learner. This last one is about you – as in Your Future is Calling. This is the reason we will explore in depth here in what I call the lessons of CS50/CS50x at Harvard University.

Buzz TodaySource:  David J. Malan CS50 blog: I am a Senior Lecturer on Computer Science at Harvard University I received my A.B., S.M., and Ph.D. in Computer Science from the same in 1999, 2004, and 2007, respectively. I teach Harvard College’s introductory course, Computer Science 50 otherwise known as CS50. In October 2012 Harvard launched a MOOC called CS50x. 150,349 students registered to take the course online. 1,388 or .9% of the original registrants received a certificate of completion for taking the course.

The data in the BUZZ Today documents the level of completion of the MOOC number CS50x offered starting in October, 2012 from Harvard University. The percentage of enrollment that received a certificate of completion was .9%. CS50 is the core course offered on the Harvard campus to students enrolled in degree seeking programs at this prestigious University. During the fall of 2012 there were 706 Harvard students enrolled in CS50. Of those 706 originally enrolled, 703 or 99.6% completed the course.

With so many nines floating around it may be confusing. The results for completion are .9% vs. 99.6%. Just to be totally clear, this is something under one percent vs. nearly one hundred percent for the same course from the most famous University in America. What does it mean?

Clearly it is not about the commonly referenced issues of course content, college reputation, faculty status/capability or time of the year. It is the same course, the same university at the same time. I will assert that what is different is the student doing the learning and more specifically the motivation of the students enrolled in the MOOC CS50x versus the motivation of the on campus student enrolled in CS50.

Here is the specific conclusion relative to the headline that the degree is important. The most important distinction between the students enrolled in CS50x, the online MOOC and CS50, the Harvard University campus course, is that all of the students on campus were students enrolled in a degree program. They were degree seeking students. In contrast, none of the students enrolled in CS50x, the online MOOC were degree seeking students. CS50x does not award college credit. By design, completion of CS50x online does not qualify for credit toward an accredited degree. There is one other important distinction between CS50x and CS50. The campus based CS50 students actually paid thousands of dollars of tuition to be enrolled while the CS50x MOOC students enrolled for free.

So the key comparisons are:

CS50x – Free MOOCM .9% completion
CS50 – Tuition paying and degree seeking 99.6% completion

This is the same course from the same institution taught by the same faculty member. One is online and one is on campus. All of those who enrolled in CS50x knew it was online before they registered.

It’s clearly not about the cost, the content, the fame of the faculty member, nor the reputation of the institution. These are all factors frequently cited as differentiators. I assert that it isn’t even about the quality of the students attending even though Harvard’s highly selective admission policies are designed to assure high quality students. On a pure random basis, with 150,349 registrations for a Harvard course there had to be tens of thousands with the intellectual capacity of those attending CS50 on the Harvard campus.

There is only one defensible inference to be drawn from this gigantic .9% vs. 99.6% gap. The implication has to be that the campus based students were motivated to complete while the online CS50x students had no comparable compelling purpose to complete the course. The investment of the campus students represented a step toward an important credential – in this case, an accredited Harvard University degree. For the online MOOC students this was just another course out of thousands available.

And it is with this evidence that I share the third important reason for earning a degree.  This third reason is about you, the learner. The credential, that is, the degree itself is a powerful motivator to do the work to learn and prosper from the effort.

Oh, by the way, I think this data has important implications for the outlook of MOOCs as the disruptive force in higher education. I will let you draw your own inferences about this issue. My belief is that MOOCs as they are constituted today will not displace the higher education as we know it.