Thursday, July 09, 2009

Education in Context

Going back to school to earn my MBA and pursue my CPA license gave me an interesting opportunity to revisit the way students think about their education. I had forgotten, frankly, the many assumptions students have about the effort needed to succeed and the worth of their degrees. As I entered my final semester at UHV and chatted with classmates in our capstone Strategic Management course, I was a bit surprised to find how many expected their degree to somehow automatically produce good job offers for them, even as the recesssion continued. Some of that, I think, goes back to the way students have lived up to a certain age – through the first 18 years of life, everything happens more or less in predictable fashion. Finish tenth grade, move on to eleventh grade, get the summer job one year, decide whether to go back there or try something new the next summer, because there’s always summer work, et cetera.

What also surprised me, though, were more experienced people like myself who returned to school and seemed to believe that their new degree would open new opportunities for them, in a fashion not very different from the kids. You’d think that a few years in reality would remind a person that the degree is a tool, and while it can be very useful or even critical to success, you have to use it effectively to get results, and your success depends on your work, your ability, and your opportunity. I spend a lot of time asking God to give me some of that third quality. Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand in this world, and that includes a degree from even the best university. I read earlier this spring in BusinessWeek that even some graduates from the Harvard Business School were unable to find job offers. That’s a real wake-up call for anybody, but that snooze button is more popular.

When I first became a manager, I hated marketing and sales. Not that they are bad in themselves, I just had no taste for them and wanted to work without having to sell things. Reality taught me, however, that you have to sell things all through your life, and if you don’t learn to sell then you are cheating yourself. Product number 1 is You. The package is how you portray yourself and your work, and your resume is the printed ad. And the degree(s) you earn are features you offer. I mentioned some time back that I chose to go to a lower-profile business school not only because of price and convenience, but also because I have established my resume to the point that a fancy school would not significantly improve my offers. That does not mean that prestige has no value, but you’d better think hard about what you have to put in and what you hope to get back, and how it will work.

The big jump from high school to college is not just that the work gets harder and much different in form and style, but also that you choose your school, your classes, the number of classes, and of course your major, concentration, or focus. And as you work your way through the degree plan, you may well make changes and adjustments to your plan. Some people even change their school, either upgrading to a more prestigious school or changing for other reasons, like distance or personal comfort. What is important here is to understand that earning your degree is meant to outfit you for the life ahead, at least to equip you with the tools to succeed in your work.

Basically, here’s how I see college programs and degrees in terms of work value. Before I start, I want to remind you that you should always get more than one or two opinions on this sort of thing, even if you completely agree with one person’s position:


Top-Tier for Specialty: If you can afford it and have the ability to handle a difficult and strenous curriculum, you should consider applying to the top school in your chosen field. It will be hard to get in, and such schools will drain you in the pursuit of your degree. However, earning your degree from the school generally acknowledged to be the best will help you get not only offers when you graduate, but better ones. The chief caveat here, aside from the cost and making sure you can handle the work, is to get a very wide input of opinion; for every school that is truly the best in its field, another six will claim to be as good.

Regional Leader: If you ask around, you should be able to find out which school is the best-respected overall in your part of the state. If you cannot afford or receive entry into the top school for your field, or if you are unsure about your field, it’s generally a good idea to go to the best-known school in your area.

Major State: Most college students go to a big state university, for the obvious reason that such schools tend to be reasonable in cost, have a respectable reputation, and are not excessively difficult. A nice, safe, average road to travel.

Prestigious Private: There was a time when I would have said this was a smart road, a way to stand out without obscenely high cost or difficulty. Now, I am not so sure. Private schools cost more than public schools as a rule, but from speaking with managers and executives I have found that private school graduates do not impress any more than public school graduates, except for top schools in a certain field. So, if you are considering going to a private school in your area that is not specifically known for excellence in the area in which you wish to major, you might want to rethink your plan.

Common State: The old stand-by, the closest large school. This has the advantages of being relatively inexpensive and not all that hard to graduate, but it also looks the part. The biggest problem is that there are a lot of schools that look like a student settled for them when they could not get into their first or second choice. And yes, your resume might look like that as well when you try to go find a good job with a degree from Boring State U.

Small Private: This is one to avoid. If a school is private but can’t point to any good reason you should pay more to go there than a public school, leave it well alone.

Corporation U: By that tag, I mean the for-profit schools which try to sell you on the idea that their degrees will change your life and be just as good as the schools your parents knew and might have gone to. The good news, is that many of these schools are accredited, they offer flexible schedules and they have a lot of students. The bad news is that businesses do not regard degrees from these schools as equal to a “real” degree. Sure it’s prejudice, but it’s also reality.

Diploma Mill: I should not have to mention these places, but they pop up so much I feel I had better say something. In short, here it is – your degree is bascialy worth the work you put into earning it. There’s no educational value to “life experience”, if you put one of these on your resume you will be discovered sooner or later, and when it does your career will be ruined. Diploma mills are like prostitutes; you should not be tempted, but if you are for some reason, remember what can go wrong for that one bad decision.

The next part is the sort of Degree you earn:


The Associates degree is useful if – and only if – you then continue on to at least a Bachelor’s degree. No major employer is impressed with an Associate’s degree.

Certification: This can be useful or worthless. A certificate is nowhere near a degree, at best it represents a small set of courses, ususally fewer than five, in a specific category of study. However, for some jobs certification is an advantage if it applies to the work.

Bachelor of Arts: It’s commonly said that what took a high school diploma in the 1960s, needs a Bachelor’s Degree today. But there are two general flavors of Bachelor’s degree, and the B.A. is clearly the weak sister on this level. The reason for this, is that the majors which lead to a B.A. degree are generally less practical than those which lead to a Bachelor of Science degree. Also, some majors allow for either a B.A. or B.S., but require more work for the B.S. degree. The B.A. is best when it leads to a more advanced degree.

Bachelor of Science: This degree is the basic tool for an effective education that leads to gainful employment (I include the B.B.A. in this category). The Bachelor of Science degree represents real world at an established standard level of proficiency, and it also can serve as the foundation for further degrees.

Masters Degree: The Masters degree takes your studies to the next level, but also discriminates against general knowledge. That is, a Masters degree in a subject focuses on the concentration more than does the Bachelor’s degree, so there is less flexibility. That is, a Master’s in one subject will not qualify you for jobs requiring a Master’s in a different area.

Master of Business Administration: The M.B.A. is the premier degree for business professionals. That said, if the job specifies a different degree, such as a Masters in Accountancy, the M.B.A. will probably not meet the requirement.

Doctorate: An effective degree for teaching, research, and government positions. Otherwise, not likely to be worth the effort, except in specialized fields like Medicine or Law.