The internet has largely democratized information. Many people now have access to a vast wealth of resources, even specialized courses or tutorials, for free or minimal cost. This has led to an increase in the popularity of self-learning as an alternative to higher education.
At the same time, many employers lament a growing disparity between workers’ skills and those that a college education bestows upon graduates. This lowers the perceived value of a degree. In an age where burgeoning student debt is a widely acknowledged concern, the ROI of higher education itself is called into question.
Combining these two trends makes it easy to see why more people today would find a DIY education appealing. However, the value of higher education has never been greater, and the two approaches need to go hand-in-hand for the best outcomes.
Addressing the skills gap
The world of work is constantly changing. To a certain extent, what students learn in school can’t really keep pace with the workplace’s evolving needs. Many Twitter or Uber employees today grew up in a world without social media or ride-sharing, for instance.
This inherent deficit places a greater burden on the new employee to learn and fill the skills gap. And it’s a process that never really ends. Adults today need to be continuous learners to stay competitive.
The internet can be a source of both misleading and useful information. However, armed with the skill to recognize fake news and vet sources, learners of all ages can use this resource to their advantage. Going further, online courses allow you to supplement your education with à la carte, made-to-scale offerings that easily fit into a busy lifestyle.
Education remains a differentiator
Employers tend to use the college factor as a heuristic to sort through candidates. This type of mechanism is widely used in other domains, after all.
For instance, having a home’s residential alarm monitoring certified by Underwriters Laboratories means that it meets the gold standard for security. Likewise, graduating from a reputable institution speaks for your qualifications.
Critics of this system will point out that a degree doesn’t necessarily signify you’ve learned all the relevant skills. Proponents of the DIY education model will argue that you can learn the same things on your own initiative and even go deeper. They will say that a degree is just a badge, but self-learning is the true mark of commitment and application.
The problem with this criticism of education is that it glosses over two aspects that remain absolutely vital to a successful career: discipline and fundamentals.
No matter what course you took or what school you attended, you had to show up. You were assessed on knowledge and mastery of subjects. While the curriculum may not have kept pace with changes in the workplace, that doesn’t detract from the effort you put in to pass your subjects.
Too often, self-learners lack the proper discipline to do the same. They aren’t being held accountable for outcomes. They are free to cherry-pick aspects of knowledge from a domain, based on what sparks their curiosity, perhaps. Or maybe driven by what seems relevant or applicable to their current situation.
Employers can’t assume that all graduates of a relevant course have mastered the skills needed for a job. Neither can they assume that self-learners have actually disciplined themselves and taken the trouble to master their field’s fundamentals. However, between the two, finishing college can at least differentiate you by signifying your ability to commit to in-depth learning.
Breadth, depth, and impact
Instead of arguing for the superiority of higher education over self-learning or vice versa, the takeaway should be that they complement each other. A degree ensures you have a depth of knowledge, while continuous learning gives you breadth and adaptability. One establishes your capabilities; the other expands your horizons.
This ties into the concept of a T-shaped model of learning as the cornerstone of success. The world is full of complex, “wicked” environments. You need a combination of specialized and transferable skills to respond to change and find new ways to succeed.
Maybe you’ve been able to get by thus far in your career through self-learning. If so, it may be time to give back and re-dedicate yourself to formal learning. Making a difference in the world is the ultimate return on investment. And some of the most influential positions in any field will require higher education. Plan your career accordingly, and you can contribute to society’s greatest needs.