Value of a College Education
Value of a College Education

In the past year, U.S. newspapers and magazines are highlighting success stories of students who choose not to attend or complete college, as well as articles critical of the value of higher education.  Furthermore, the growth of free online sites that offer courses and lectures by top university professors around the country is also being widely reported in American newspapers. With college debt soaring and a terrible job market for recent graduates, the democratization of education seems to be the issue du jour in the United States.

This news analysis examines American and international perspectives on the value of a college education in light of online efforts to democratize education.

American Perception of the Value of a College Education

Hundreds of articles in major newspapers on the decreasing value of a college education have been written over the past year. Basic findings:

  • School quality is declining. A federal study showed only 25 percent of college graduates had information literacy. Thirty-three percent of college students had less than 40 pages of required reading per semester (The Economist, 2012), a measurement that demonstrates a lack of rigor in U.S. colleges. The book, Academically Adrift, confirms the decline stating that students did not gain critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills after three semesters in college (Ripley, 2012)
  •  The tech sector inspires and rewards college drop-outs. The Thiel Fellowship pays students to drop- out of college and pursue their own ventures. Many tech companies are hiring college drop-outs, who are viewed as free-thinkers and risk-takers. (Williams, 2012)
  • College affordability is the main barrier to participation. While 87 percent of Americans believe that college is a good investment, 57 percent feel that it does not provide a good value for the money and 75 percent say it is too expensive for most Americans to afford (Pew Research, 2011)
  • The bachelor’s degree is worth less than it used to be. Many bachelor degree holders are employed in jobs that do not require a college degree and furthermore these degrees are not necessarily aligned with job openings that require different skill sets. So, alternatives, such as training programs and online programs are proliferating and Master degree programs are increasing as well (Lawrence, 2012).

Higher Education officials and publications are trying to combat these negative perceptions by explaining the value of a college education. Some of their arguments include:

  • Unemployment for recent four-year college graduates (6.8 percent) is much higher than the unemployment rate for recent high school graduates (24 percent) and underemployment is lower as well, 8.4 percent compared to 17.3 percent (Jaschik, 2012).
  • College graduates earn nearly $650,000 more than high school graduates over the course of their work life (Pew Research, 2011).
  • Workplaces still use a college degree as a benchmark for managerial level work, even though there are qualified applicants that have less education (Lawrence, 2012).

The challenges facing colleges are real. High college costs and perceived decline in the value of the degree are issues that colleges will need to address to make education relevant for the 21st century. The media exacerbates the situation by reporting stories of success of the outliers. These outliers though are not representative of the average college drop-out. These articles are indicative of a general feeling within American society that today’s education system is not meeting the needs of many of today’s youth to succeed in the job market. Within this climate, alternatives are arising.

Democratization of Higher Education

One alternative is the MOOC (massive open online courses), which are taught to thousands of individuals at virtually no cost. The New York Times declared 2012 as the Year of the MOOC, “Massive open online courses are the educational happening of the moment. Everyone wants in. No one is quite sure what they’re getting into” (Pappano, 2012).

Udacity, one of the major MOOCs, offers 6,000 online courses that receive 70,000 lecture views per month. More than 160,000 people from 190 countries are enrolled in Udacity courses. Students do not get credit for these courses, but can receive certificates of completion. Stanford University issued certificates to those who completed the free, eight-week “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course. Udacity and similar platforms are looking for revenue streams, such as nominal fees for some classes and fees paid by corporations for placement services. The founders believe these services help democratize education and give students access to something they would not otherwise receive (Abrams, 2012).

MOOCs work best for students who are highly motivated and are already self-educated. They will not truly democratize education for those who are not academically prepared for the course work.  In its article on MOOCs, Time writes, “Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way. Thrun and his MOOC competitors may be setting out to democratize education, but it isn’t going to happen tomorrow.” Time hopes that MOOCs will at the very least force brick-and-mortar schools to use technology more effectively in the classroom (Ripley, 2012).

Despite the rise of MOOCs in the U.S., they have not caught on in Britain. The Guardian (November 2012) notes that that this is due to fears that MOOCs will hurt enrollment and tuition in British higher education institutions. These fears are present across the U.S., though many prestigious universities are getting involved anyways.

International Perceptions of Higher Education

Outside the U.S., the mainstream media does not seem to be focused on the declining value of a college education. Major European newspapers, such as Le Monde Diplomatique, der Spiegel, and The Guardian are not addressing these issues in their national or international coverage. English-language, peer-reviewed journals though are covering this issue.

Here are some examples:

  • In 2010, Educational Psychology in Practice highlighted how working class Brits views the value of a college education.
  • In 2011, the European Journal of Social Sciences published an article about the value of Nigerian’s higher education, in light of the country’s model of state funding for higher education.
  • In October 2012, Community College Review printed an article about how young female Japanese view two-year schools.
  • Also in October 2012, the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education had an article about how Bangladeshi students perceive the quality of private higher education institutions in comparison to publish education institutions.

The value of an education was very high in Japan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. In all three countries, education was linked to status and better economic prospects. Nigerian students were even willing to contribute towards the costs of their education; currently all state schools are funded mainly by the state. Britain, on the other hand, faces many of the same challenges as the U.S., though unlike the U.S., students are not turning to MOOCs and online education as an alternative.


The rise of MOOCs is clearly filling a need in the United States and abroad for people who want to learn more about the world and receive a college education without paying huge fees and without leaving their home. Will it revolutionize education? Will it democratize education? Will it change how higher education is delivered around the world? Maybe! Clearly MOOCs are a disruptive technology that has the potential to educate those whose needs are not currently met in traditional brick-and-mortar schools or even in accredited online universities.

At some point, a sustainable business model will need to be found. How long will university professors give away their knowledge to non-paying students? How will these sites be able to pay for the bandwidth and web traffic of the millions of people who will visit them? These sites are already exploring different models to monetize their efforts and will probably find different ways to do so in the near future.

Higher education systems around the world have many problems and challenges that they must meet to provide students an affordable, meaningful education for the 21st century. Hopefully, as noted by Time, MOOCs will help encourage accredited higher education systems to improve themselves so that students do not feel the need to drop out to achieve rewarding careers.

Works Cited
Abrams, M. (2012, June 13). A college education on the cheap? Tech start-ups take on higher ed. CNBC. Retrieved from:

Adeniyi, E.O., Taiwo, S.A. (2011). Funding higher education in Nigeria through cost sharing: Perceptions of lecturers, students and parents. European Journal of Social Sciences. Volume 24, Number 4. 524.

Akareem, H.S., Hossain, S.S. (2012, August 28). Perception of education quality in private universities of Bangladesh: a study from students’ perspective. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education.

Anzai, S., Paik, Chie M.(2012, October). Japanese female students’ perceptions of 2-year colleges as a choice for postsecondary education. Community College Review.  Vol. 40 Issue 4, p279-299.

Bradley, J., Miller, A. (2010, December). Widening participation in higher education: constructions of “going to university.” Educational Psychology in Practice, Vol. 26, No. 4, 401–413

Harris, J. (2012, November 26). UK universities are wary of getting on board the mooc train. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Is college worth it. (2011, May 15). Pew Research. Retrieved from:

Jaschik, S. (2012, August 15). A degree still matters. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Lawrence, L. (2012, June 17). Bachelor’s degree: Has it lost its edge and its value? Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from:

Not what it used to be (2012, December 1). The Economist. Retrieved from:

Pappano. L. (2012, November 2). Year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Ripley, A. (2012, October 18). College Is dead. Long live college!. Time. Retrieved from:

William, A. (2012, November 30). Saying no to college. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

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