A Degree is an Abstraction

An educational degree is a piece of paper. That’s all it is. It’s supposed to represent something more, like the possession of knowledge and skill, but in many cases it doesn’t. A degree is an abstraction, and like all abstractions, it leaks.

Degrees are leaking a lot[1][2][3]. Consider the following quote from an interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President of People Operations:

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

There are a number of reasons for this (Bock’s interview gives a few ideas), but I want to focus on the consequences.

When a degree stops becoming a clear indicator of a person’s skill-level, integrity, and drive, then employers will look to some other indicator for finding these things. This isn’t new. Employers have increasingly used portfolios, interviews, and past work to help them select candidates. But as the “degree-abstraction” continues to break down, the focus on these other indicators will continue to increase and new indicators will be discovered.

The demand for new indicators is only getting stronger–modern business literature is heavily focusing on hiring the right candidates. Books, blogs, and speakers are constantly stressing the importance of getting “the right people on the bus”. To hire well, companies are spending more time and energy building their hiring algorithms, of which an educational degree is a shrinking part. All the while, a student’s degree is a disproportionately expensive part of the money they spend qualifying themselves.

Thoughts for students

I’m not recommending you skip college. Most sources show that a college education is still financially wise over the long term, despite the rising costs.

When I was at college, the pressures of school forced me to optimize. If a lecture wasn’t providing value, I wouldn’t attend (or, more likely, I’d start doing the reading/homework in class). If there was a shorter path to getting full credit, I’d find it. I told myself that it’s a valuable skill to be able to cut out the inessential and focus on what’s most important. And that’s true.

But be careful not to optimize for GPA at the expense of knowledge and skill. The GPA is the leaky abstraction. The knowledge and skill is what is actually valued. Optimizing for your GPA is like cheating on your workout–you are only cheating yourself. In practice, these decisions come up all the time. Do I take the class from Professor A (whose class is easy… just memorize X and attend test prep) or Professor B (whose class is HARD but she’s passionate about the subject and her lectures are awesome)? Does my school offer resources to learn things and work on projects I’m interested in outside of class? Are there opportunities to meet and listen to leaders and thinkers in my field?

You’d be surprised how much practical learning can happen after class is over.

Thoughts for educators

Formal degrees will evolve or slowly become obsolete. The world is increasingly data-driven and bad abstractions that cost lots of money will not hold up for long. Your institutions need to think of the undergraduate degree as a product that you are offering. When there’s no product-market fit, you die. So what does the job market want?

Well, if degrees are a shrinking part of employer’s hiring algorithms, then what’s increasing? When they read books on hiring, what are they reading about? Maybe we can bundle these things into a more modern degree.

I see some promising steps. I see industry-focused capstone programs. I’ve heard of student-driven projects where schools provide a prompt and access to resources, then get out of the way (in the style of maker-spaces). I see some emphasis on above-and-beyond thinking.

We can also look at successful abstractions to see what they are doing right. Why is a drivers license a good indicator that somebody is fit to drive? Why is a credit score a good indicator that you can loan somebody money without much risk? I have a few thoughts (living indicators, real-world experience, etc), but I’m more interested in what you think.

Don’t pursue abstractions

I get tired of hearing rhetoric about the degreed middle class who feels slighted when they can’t find work because “the world” doesn’t hold up “its end of the bargain”. There was no bargain. Despite what your parents and politicians may say, there was never a checklist of achievements you could collect to be valued and compensated in the workplace.

If you pursue abstractions alone then the world will shift underneath them. It’s all about the real thing… that ability to add value in the modern economy. The degree can only become a better abstraction if we focus our attention on that.