Weekend Journal — The Value Of School Lies In Opportunity

Weekend Journal — The Value Of School Lies In Opportunity

I’ve been pretty down on higher education lately. Rising costs that don’t seem to equate to raising educational levels, a large amount of mismanagement of funds and schools’ increasingly brazen one-ups-man-ship in terms of building larger buildings and offering unnecessary perks to students. I don’t like it.

But I’m a bit hypocritical. I’m a graduate of an engineering program that taught me quite a bit, in buildings that were just a touch larger than they needed to be. Further, I encouraged my wife when she expressed a desire to go back to school this semester to try out a completely different field.

So why was I ok with that? Access.

In my case, access to facilities. Access to faculty capable of teaching me difficult concepts. And most importantly, access to co-ops and potential employers. Similar reasons abound in my wife’s case, though she’ll be taking many of her classes online, so maybe not the facilities.

And what about everyone else? These days, there are countless ways to learn, much in the same way as my wife will be learning. What’s more, you can do it completely free. Udacity, MITx, Coursera, OCW, Khan Academy, Code Academy…the list keeps going! On a non-educational front, you could even consider the University of Reddit or even just looking up instructional videos on YouTube! If you want to learn something, you have little to complain about these days in terms of access. If you cannot find a way to learn about something these days, you likely need to take a course on search terms.

The value these days lies in access and opportunity. And that is rapidly shrinking.

Mostly, we see this in terms of a piece of paper. You have completely the requisite courses at your school and have fulfilled all of the requirements. “Here’s your diploma, hope it gets you a job,” they say. Though many in Generation Y are finding that it’s not the case, thanks to a large number of degreeless-yet-experienced people being unable to leave the workforce.

I maintain that the employees of the future will be:

Yes, those are all links to articles I have written, but I wrote them for a reason. There is a dramatic shift coming, in my opinion, and I think wise engineers will harden themselves against some of these disruptive changes.

Another change I see coming in the near future is apprenticeship, at least in the USA. This has existed overseas for many years (and in smaller forms in the US). My brain can’t get past the fact of the accessibility of educational material these days and how schools no longer have the monopoly in this area. What is stopping someone from going and learning the relevant job skills from an apprenticeship program and educating themselves on the theoretical information on their own? I think this is a large shift in how education will work in the future.

If you’re a student, I would not tell you to drop out. Instead, I would tell you to seek out…opportunity. Go find the internships, ask your professors out to coffee (platonically!) and ask them about their research and how they got where they are (see also: networking), get involved with technical and professional organizations and do whatever you can to squeeze that last bit of value out of your ever-increasingly expensive degree. You owe it to the person that will be paying off your loans for the next twenty years….you.


Thanks to Wally Gobetz for the school picture.


While I have definitely been able to learn material from online courses, I think it’s worth discussing the amount of personal discipline and resolve it takes to do so. When I think about what it would take to keep that up through 4 years, of college, well, then I wonder some more.

“An employee willing to take on new challenges and question authority”

When I read that trait I thought you meant to challenge, or at least not blindly follow, management directives. Which can be a slippery slope. But your linked article was merely about allowing yourself to expand your own horizons. Which is also valid… just not what the statement implies.

This is a good piece, and I agree with the several points raised. I have a few comments:

– I’m reminded of one of my favourite lines: ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’. Code Academy et al. may not be as good as a top engineering school, but it certainly competes on cost! More generally, and on an international scale, if an education 75% as good as MIT/Stanford/etc can be provided for say 25% of the cost, this would be great for the ‘democratization’ of education.

– I think the part about experience vs degree applies to higher education more generally, rather than engineering specifically. For one, a P. Eng requires a degree from an accredited school (at least in Canada, I believe there is a similar process in the US). Although not mandatory for work in the field of ‘technology’, a P.Eng is certainly a ‘signal’ of a minimum of competence and expertise.

Also, 20 years to repay an undergrad eng degree seems fairly implausible in most circumstances, even today.

– Speaking of signalling in general, a degree of any sort is more often the minimum requirement for any sort of office type job. Search costs means that most firms will likely not investigate ‘alternate education’ in great detail and would prefer to rely on established signals, eg work experience, degree, and school (probably more relevant in the US than Canada, to the former’s detriment IMHO).

– I think a good firm will appreciate this sort of education, ie they will value an applicant’s experience properly. Sadly, I do not think this is or will necessarily be the norm; there is plenty of room in the fitness landscape for mediocrity. Demographic and financial pressures will change this calculus in the next few decades; these changes however could be incremental rather than drastic.

– I read one of your last points as ‘access to… … is rapidly shrinking.’ At the margin this is probably true considering rising costs and relatively stagnant wages, but I’m not sure what this means for society in general. Improved access to education is good for all professions – why discriminate entrance to a skilled trade based on how much money your parents make? Is engineering worse or better in this regard than other trades, such as doctors, lawyers, electricians, etc.?

I appreciated this piece. It’s good ’21st century thinking’.


Couldn’t agree more with the ideas you’re putting forward here. One of the concepts we teach, actually, is exactly as you say the “piece of paper” idea–a diploma is just a piece of paper. What makes a person successful is their drive, passion, and commitment.

You list apprenticeship as a way to move past the “diploma syndrome.” Have you found that works for people who try it? How do you compare apprenticeship to entry level jobs? Something we recommend is the idea of Reverse Interviewing-where your focus instead of on getting a job is to learn more about the field you want to work in by interviewing people you identify as “Successful” in the way you want to be. Learn from the people who are already there, then emulate. Looking forward to hearing your feedback on these comparisons. Thanks for writing!

Some good points. University is a major source of what I like to refer to as “opportunity topology.” In the 21st century, money is just a waste product. If you want to create value and the U.S. is starved for value, you need to get the intellectual and capital resources together in specific venues where everyone understands “what is in it for them.” University’s have a surplus of these types of intersections of interests.

The apprenticeship route really does work, at least it did for me. It took a long time to work my way up from a technician to an engineering position. It then took a lot of self directed study time to prepare for the FE and PE exams without an engineering degree. Fortunately I qualified in my state to take the exams based on work experience. The requirements very greatly by state. There is a list of links for requirements for each state on my blog site NoDegreePE.com. On the site I write about preparing for the exams for those with lots of work experience but little formal education.

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