Thursday, June 18, 2020

Should You Get An Online Degree?

Many, if not most ads on the internet for online degrees are advertisements for odious for-profit colleges and probably should be avoided.

The monetization experiment is in day two. So far the ads seem fairly innocuous.  One was an ad for Ballard Designs, which makes IKEA-like furniture (flat-packed, with barrel nuts) in various styles.  Sort of like Wayfair.  I bought two desks from them and a file cabinet once, they were pretty nice, craftstman-style but not quarter-sawn tiger oak or anything like that.   I later sold them when we consolidated to one house.  One was starting to delaminate.  Hint: for a desk, have a piece of glass made for the top - this will cut down on wear.  I bought a similar desk years earlier (maybe from them as well, I don't recall) but I put a glass top on it (or it came with it) and it lasted a long time.  But IKEA-type furniture never lasts forever.   But then again, it is not a con or outright rip-off.  The do give you the product they advertise, for your money.

Online MBA's?   Probably less so.  But in this era of viruses, maybe online education is the wave of the future, even for mainstream colleges and universities.   Maybe this virus will push us into the era of virtual reality and work-from-home and study-from-home.   The technology has existed for well over a decade now (and the bandwidth, sort of), why do we still drive off to offices to stare into computer screens all day long, when you can stare into a computer screen at home?

Or why go off to college, incurring great expenses in terms of dorm fees or apartment rent, food, and whatnot, just so you can sit in an auditorium with 250 other Freshmen to study Chem 101 or English Lit 101?   It is not like you are getting a personal experience out of these "cattle call" classes (and most first-year classes at major universities are that way).   Why not do remote learning?

Why not indeed.   The problem isn't technological, it is psychological.  I noted before how we saw "picturephone" demonstrated at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, New York. Saw that snazzy new Mustang car, too.  Next year, we had a brand-new 1964-1/2 Mustang parked in our driveway, but no picturephone.    56 years later, no picturephone.  No phone, even!   Turns out, people didn't want to see other people when they called.   It is why Skype never really took off (why wasn't that a huge deal, instead of flash-in-the-pan?) and why so many people complain about "Zoom".   There is something about a video call or video conference call that is, well, dis-engaging.   Now imagine watching a professor drone on, on a video screen.   Why bother even having live classes?  Just download the lesson from YouTube and watch it at your leisure.

This could put a lot of professors out of work.   The popular professors - the "rock stars" could end up with millions of followers across platforms and schools.   It is akin to how movie stars put a lot of itinerant actors out of a job, or pop music stars and the gramophone put a lot of local amateur musicians out of a job.   Time was, everyone was a musician, and everyone played an instrument or sang or did something to entertain themselves, because mass-media simply didn't exist.

But whether we move toward a world of online interaction and virtual reality still remains to be seen. There is something about our persona that requires physical interaction, otherwise we go insane.  One of the cruelest punishments devised by man is solitary confinement, which can literally drive people crazy.  The "supermax" cells they put the terrorists in, in Colorado, are criticized as being inhumane, not because of torture or deprivation of food, light, heat, or water, but because of the lack of human contact.

I noted weeks ago that this "lockdown" thing could not go on forever, as people would slowly start to lose their minds.   And they have, too.   People are becoming depressed and irrational.  And much of the rioting accompanying the recent protests has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter and a lot to do with people simply letting off steam.    Locked up for weeks with no social interaction (other than awkward visits to the Safeway) people start to melt down.   Quarantine - of the entire population - simply can't work.

And it may be the only thing to save higher education - people need to gather in groups, at sports arenas, at theaters, at political rallies, in big cities.  We are a hive mind, it seems, we need not only to hear and see each other, but to smell each other's pheromones, like ants or bees do.

But I digress.

I wrote before about the MBA craze of the 1980's and 1990's.   Yuppies, who squandered their college years studying liberal arts, all went back to school to get MBAs so they could get better jobs.  Many young people set out to get MBAs, with the idea that they would directly go into "management" from college without ever having managed anyone.    I can only say that managing other people is the most difficult job I ever had and I sucked at it.   You can't be too nice or too mean.   Too nice, they walk all over you, and if you are too strict, they revolt.    You have to keep your emotional distance from employees - you are not their friend.   Quite frankly, people want their managers to be aloof and to manage from afar.  As I noted in another posting, the quiet corridor of "partner's row" had an almost religious feel to it - as if you were treading on sacred ground when called into the partner's office.

It just wouldn't be the same, if he were in a cubicle.

But again, I digress.   But this illustrates my skepticism of the MBA degree in general - that somehow you can learn how to run a company from college, and go out and start at the top, never having managed people, or a corporation.    I think the trend has faded, but that doesn't stop a legion of schools from offering these programs, and offering them online through click-bait ads.

The promise is this (and it is an implied promise):  Your stalled career can move forward if you just acquire more credentials.   This strategy might work if you are a school teacher in the State of New York, where your pay is tied to how many degrees you have.   But in the real world (where you have to make profits and not just sock taxpayers with larger and larger bills) this isn't the case.  No one cares if you have a PhD, if you are incompetent, and many very smart people are what I call "PhD-impaired" - being able to see the all the details of the trees, but not the forest itself.  Credentials might help you get that first job, but increasingly, particularly in today's technical society, experience trumps credentials.

I noted time and again how I would get people sending me resumes asking for a job as a Patent Attorney.  They went to this law school in the woods of New Hampshire that claimed to specialize in Patent Law.   But they had zero experience in drafting and prosecuting Patent Applications. They had never worked at the Patent Office, or at any Patent firm.   It would be a long and arduous task to train them to do the simplest things,such as file an Information Disclosure Statement (which back then, required you detail the "relevance" of each reference).   You might be able to bill a client a few hundred dollars for such a filing, but it would cost you more than that if you had to painfully train that young associate how to do it.   And of course, the same would be true down the line, particularly for that first Patent Application.  And once they got experience, they would leave for a bigger and higher-paying firm - who would actually pay money for a "trained" employee.

These youngsters couldn't understand why I wasn't going to offer them a six-figure salary right out of school - when I was barely making that myself! - to come to work for my small firm.   Credentials are fine and all, but without experience, are largely useless in life.

By the way, this morning, two sidebar ads appeared for Dasani water - a legitimate company as well, although bottled water is, to some extent, an unnecessary expense.  We buy it only when camping, and even then, use it sparingly.   I digress further, but I am guessing my hit rate actually goes up with the ads.  Why?  Because people put more trust in something slick and commercial-looking.  They will flock to McDonald's for a crappy warm breakfast, but avoid the diner across the street that makes their own bread - and charges less for better food.   People like slick and commercial, as it appears to be "successful".     But we'll see how that works out.

Why there are ads for "tiny tricks" like putting lemons by your bed, I do not know.  I clicked on one, and it just lead to another blog with lists of useless tricks like that.  What are they selling, lemons?  Adblock plus, by the way, seems to block these ads.  They can also be "x-ed" out.  If they start covering the content to the point you can't read it, I will dump the experiment.

So... getting back to online MBAs!   I had a friend who signed up for such an online course of study.  His boss implied that the reason he wasn't getting a promotion was lack of a scholarly credential.  So they went and got this credential from an online college and.... no promotion!    Turns out, the boss didn't want to promote them, and used the credential thing as an excuse.  So be sure to look before you leap, in terms of going back to school.   Graduate courses in particular can really rack up the debt, as they will loan you money based on "ability to pay" rather than "need" as for undergraduates.  And in terms of "ability to pay" apparently the sky is the limit.  You can run up six-figure debt this way - and most of the "poster childs" of student loan debt accumulated most of their debt from graduate work.   Beware - be forewarned.

But on top of that is the aspect of an online degree.  Not all degrees are the same in value.   Again, maybe this will change in the coming months or years, due to the virus - our entire society is in flux.   We are at the cusp of a major change in our society, I think.   Or, back-to-normal in six months.  We'll see.  That being said, a degree from Harvard or Yale will always trump Syracuse University, even if you had a 4.0 at SU and a 2.5 at Yale.   Name brand educations will always be worth more.

So, that being said, what do you think a degree from Corinthian College is going to be worth to a prospective employer?  Or any online university or college?   The perception of any "for-profit" school is that the education is useless and that everyone graduates with at least a "B" average, even if they don't even show up for class.   Whether that perception is correct or not isn't the point.   It is the same deal as the status of a Harvard degree.   You can go to Harvard and learn absolutely nothing - and many people have done so (I've met them!).   That doesn't mean you know anything or are of any use to a company looking to hire you.

For-profit schools have an odious reputation for bankrupting their students through sky-high tuition and student loans.  They prey upon the weak and desperate - people who want to better themselves.  They particularly target minorities.   What is particularly odious about this is that the students who get caught up in these schemes end up saddled with student loans for life, and with an education that doesn't lead them to anything.   They cannot get a better job as a result of the education, and as a result, they can never pay back the staggering cost of the school.

So, we have to put this one down as a bad deal.  Supposedly, I can go on this "infolinks" site and spike ads I think are inappropriate.  I will investigate this and see.

Particleboard furniture?  OK.  Bottled water?  OK.  Maybe not stellar bargains, but not a quantum rip-off.   Online for-profit colleges?    NO.

UPDATE:  I had clicked on something called "intext" on infolinks.  This takes various pieces of text and makes them into hotlinks for ads.  Very annoying!  I turned this off, today.   I have to say, at the very least, Infolinks makes it easy to adjust advertising levels, from one simple ad, to covering your page with them.   The learning curve is steep, though!