By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This is the second article in a two-part series on continuing higher education.
In the first part of this series, we addressed the argument that continuing education is not worth the investment in time or money. We showed that continuing education can make a difference in the lives of students in many different ways. It is a valuable investment and well worth the costs.
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But there is another common argument against continuing education…the idea that self-education is just as good or better than formal schooling.
Debunking the Self-Education Myth
One of my students in a law class once told me that he didn’t feel he needed to go to school to learn about the law. “I can learn everything I need to know from Google,” he said.
He made this assertion after one of our very first lecture sessions. He walked up after class and asked me why I spent so many years in college when everything that I knew as an attorney one could learn online on one’s own.
My first reaction was astonishment at his apparent arrogance. But my better nature prevailed and I bit my tongue.
I thought about his claim for a moment, and then I conceded the point. Because as much as it stung to admit it, he was actually right. There is nothing secretive or proprietary about law school curriculum or any other higher education program for that matter.
Most of what is taught in colleges and universities around the country is freely available on the internet. So one needn’t necessarily go to school to access that information.
However, I countered the student’s argument with several reasons why he might find such an approach less efficient and less productive than simply going to school.
First, students generally don’t know what they need to learn. Imagine that I sit you down at a computer and tell you to “go and learn how to be a lawyer.” Where would you start — www.gobealawyer.com?
The fact is that part of the value of higher education lies in having seasoned experts in their respective fields guiding learners through the process of acquiring knowledge. They do this at a measured pace and in an order that makes sense. Without that guidance, learners are unaware of what they need to know and how they should go about learning it.
Second, higher education trumps self-guided learning because of the structure. Imagine again that I sit you down to learn about the law, but this time I give you all the law books, prep materials, exams, assignments, PowerPoint presentations, handouts and every other piece of information I was given during my four years of law school. I put these materials in a big stack (which, incidentally, would be several feet high…law books are notoriously thick texts), and I tell you to start at the top, work your way down, and come see me when you’ve finished it all.
How many students do you honestly think are capable of the self-organization, self-discipline and self-motivation necessary to work through all that material on their own? Could they absorb it in a meaningful way and be successful on a bar exam?
Having taught thousands of college students myself, my intuition tells me that not too many students would be capable of this discipline. This point should not be misconstrued as a dig at college students. Most of the students I work with are passionate, capable learners.
But the fact is that a learning process which requires years of one’s time also requires structure and direction for effective completion. This is why colleges organize their curricula into courses and programs, with exams and assignments designed to test knowledge at the end of each stage.
This process ensures that students will have mastered basic information before moving on to more complex concepts. Without this framework, most learners would simply be overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Third, formal higher education is superior to self-learning because of accreditation. Let us assume that a self-learner somehow manages the task of finding out all that he needs to learn to replicate the law school experience at home. He also musters the fortitude to chew through it all on his own. He does this so well that his knowledge and skills are indistinguishable from those of a bona fide law school graduate.
But then imagine that the same student attempts to register for the bar exam. Chances are he will be told by his state’s bar commissioners that he is not eligible because he does not have a law degree.
Even if he happens to reside in one of the four states that still allow an examinee to sit for the exam without a degree, he will still be limited to work in only those states. Other states do not recognize bar licenses earned without a degree.
In fact, I went to law school with a veteran attorney from California. He earned his license in California without a law school degree and ran his own practice for over 20 years. But then his family decided to relocate to Florida, so he was forced to enroll in law school and complete a degree in order to become eligible to practice law in his new home state.
Attorneys without degrees are also at a significant disadvantage when looking for work. Imagine interviewing for attorney positions, and when you are asked where you went to law school, you reply that you “just Googled the law at home.” How seriously do you think you’re likely to be taken, when compared to applicants with a legitimate law school education?
Proper Accreditation for Continuing Education Programs Is Important
To be fair, many fields of work obviously don’t require the kinds of strict licensure that attorneys or medical doctors must maintain. But accreditation is nonetheless important for one’s learning accomplishments. When a college or university issues a degree to a student, the institution is effectively proclaiming to the world that the student has successfully met the standards of rigor required of its degree program and has earned the credentials he or she is receiving.
The school vouches for the quality of the student, and stakeholders — such as employers — generally respect credentials awarded by accredited institutions of higher learning. Without that respected accreditation, there’s no real way to know how much a self-taught learner did — or did not — actually learn.
Higher education is an undertaking worth considering. I practice what I preach; I have been a college student for more than 15 years, and I currently hold eight different academic degrees in various disciplines. And as of the time of this article’s publication, I am working on my ninth.
I have also persuaded many of my former students to enroll in graduate programs, and invariably they return with gratitude. This is a cause I truly believe in, and it is my hope that this information inspires other students to explore their options for continuing education.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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