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Is a degree becoming a drawback?

My husband and I recently undertook the unenviable task of decluttering our storage room, an area of the house I normally treat as a no-man's land since it's cold, has spiders and is littered with junk. After throwing out the antique golf clubs, broken baby furniture and aging university textbooks, the act of discarding useless materials started to feel addictive and liberating. Then we stumbled upon several large, framed diplomas. My husband flippantly suggested that we should roll one up and smoke it.

Our ambivalence toward our degrees is far from unique. In January, Michael Staton, a partner at Learn Capital, a California-based venture capital firm focused on education, argued in a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Degree is Doomed that the credential is "rapidly losing relevance."

In some cases, he wrote, a degree can even be a liability, recounting an exchange with one software CEO who avoids hiring candidates with advanced software engineering degrees since they are likely to expect higher wages. Mr. Staton said several of the startups he advises consider traditional credentials to be a relic of the last century and he asserts that the value of degrees will continue to decline as employers learn to embrace more efficient ways to gauge aptitude and skills.

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According to a recent Gallup poll, business leaders appear to be in agreement, with 84 per cent of respondents ranking a candidate's knowledge in a particular field as "very important." Compare that to the 28 per cent who felt that a candidate's college or university major has any real significance.

Christine McWebb, director of academic programs at the University of Waterloo's Stratford, Ont., campus, said she wouldn't go so far as to call the degree "doomed." However, the current separation of disciplines, which she calls a leftover from the Industrial Age, leads to "knowledge silos" and this lack of intersection does "an excellent job of preparing students for the 20th century," she quipped.

"A university graduate's degree only tells part of the story," Ms. McWebb said, adding that a graduate in one subject may well have taken courses in other fields and participated in other opportunities, such as co-ops, study-abroad programs and internships.

Some postsecondary institutions are evolving to capture these additional skill sets, said Ms. McWebb, pointing to the University of California, Davis, which developed a digital "badge system" for its interdisciplinary program in sustainable agriculture. The students earn digital badges or icons, representing their experience and areas of expertise, which they can use on their social media accounts and portfolios.

Closer to home, the global business and digital arts program at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus makes maintaining an e-portfolio mandatory for students in second year and beyond. This online tool allows students to share their projects and assignments with prospective employers.

"There are many innovative solutions in practice at postsecondary institutions, but a system-wide revision of the current degree structure is some time off yet," said Ms. McWebb.

Unfortunately, if postsecondary institutions don't speed up the process of transformation, more students will either drop out or be saddled with a costly degree that doesn't align with current market opportunities.

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Adam Rivietz, 21, said he dropped out of the University of Western Ontario in his third year when he realized that a bachelor's degree in philosophy would have virtually no impact on his entrepreneurial future. He found himself skipping class to run his businesses and felt guilty about wasting his time and his parents' money.

"Even when I did go to class, I'd learn one or two interesting, applicable things versus the 100,000 I was teaching myself online out of class," said Mr. Rivietz, who now runs the startup www.InstaElite.com. He also takes on part-time app consulting work to pay the bills.

"Truthfully, as most do, I went to university solely to get a degree that would hopefully lead me to a high-paying job. Once I realized that was no longer going to happen, I knew it was time to create that job and bet on the only thing or person I could really count on: me," Mr. Rivietz said.

Mr Rivietz doesn't plan to apply for a traditional job any time soon, but he said if he ever does, his track record would be as important as a degree. He acknowledges that the life he has chosen isn't for everyone and some professional roles require proper education and certification. "I wouldn't want a med-school dropout for a doctor," he said.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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