Panel: Is the traditional degree obsolete?


I had the honor of participating in two panel discussions at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on December 4 and 5. This panel’s central question: Is the traditional degree obsolete? In preparing for the panel, I put together these notes.


  • Jeff Dieffenbach, lead staff director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative
  • Our mission is to fund, connect, and disseminate learning effectiveness research
  • Our scope is birth to pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning
  • The research addresses learning effectiveness questions at the learner, instruction, and policy levels
  • My background includes 10 years as a school board member and 15 years in educational publishing strategy, sales, marketing, and product management

The traditional degree is not obsolete

  • And it won’t be for the foreseeable future
  • A generation from now, a degree from a strong institution will still have value
  • But the value of the traditional degree HAS seen its peak

Traditional higher education faces three challenges

  • Cost
  • Ability to deliver knowledge and skills that life and the workplace demand
  • Sufficiently trained instructors

At the same time, organizations are developing ways to identify and assess talent that don’t go through a transcript. As a result, people will find increasing numbers of non-degree pathways into the conventional degreed workforce.

Consider the transcript/learning record

  • Let’s say that I take some courses at Institution 1
  • And I now want to take some courses from Institution 2
  • It’s fine for Institution 2 to ask to see how I performed at Institution 1
  • But why should Institution 2 determine which Institution 1 courses end up on my transcript?
  • It’s up to Institution 3 or Employer 1 to value my learning, which means they need to see my learning
  • The learning record (transcript) needs to belong to the learner

Thought experiment

Give an 18 year old interested in business $100k to start a small company. Take courses, buy materials and equipment, hire people. Let’s say that after 4 years, they’ve tried a lot of things, had some successes, had some failures … and lost $50k. Not good, right? But that’s a lot cheaper than a 4-year degree. And the experience might be of interest to an employer.

– – – – – – – – – –

Background data

  • pK-12
    • 50 million pK-12 public school students
    • Another 5 million in private schools
  • 20 million college students (up 5 million since 2000)
    • Level
      • 17 million undergrad
      • 3 million grad
    • School type
      • 2-year: 7 million
      • 4-year: 13 million
    • Public/private
      • Public: 15 million
      • Private: 5 million
    • Age
      • 12 million under 25
      • 8 million 25 and older
    • Degrees
      • Associate: 1M
      • Bachelor’s: 2M
      • Master’s: 800k
      • PhD: 175k
    • Costs: tuition, fees, room, and board
      • Public: $17k ($7k tuition/fees)
      • Private non-profit: $43k ($31k tuition/fees)
        Private for-profit: $24k ($15k tuition/fees)

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