One strength of the American higher-education system has always been the diversity of its institutions. Today that diversity is richer than ever, with various online programs, badges, and certificates, as well as traditional brick-and-mortar colleges. Whereas in the past most college degrees consisted of courses drawn predominantly from one institution, for various reasons today's students are increasingly tempted to combine courses from a wide variety of sources and then ask a college to label the resulting collection a "degree." In some cases, elements of a "degree" may also consist of providing credit for experiential learning on the job.
All these avenues to learning are valuable, but a collection of courses and experiences does not add up to a degree. A degree consists of a carefully constructed educational plan that provides coherence, breadth, and depth. A degree is not a tree but a landscape, not an aria but an opera. It is greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect, a degree is less about certification in a given, limited area and more about hours and hours of focused conversation and study over time with a variety of faculty and peers. It is about making connections among classes and testing out those ideas with others. It is about learning from alumni committed to the institution. It is about social experiences that teach skills of citizenship, like how to resolve disputes and participate in civil discourse with those who hold opposing points of view. Students who construct a collection of courses from a wide variety of sources miss out on the connections that bind an education into a degree.
Does this mean that taking a summer course destroys the coherence of a degree? Of course not. And students may take occasional courses at neighboring institutions that are in fields not provided by their home college. But these students still have a home, a community of individuals committed to the pursuit of truth and wisdom through conversation, reading, and reflection. Badges and certificates and online learning may be fine for adult learners who have clearly defined goals and the focus needed to construct their own personalized education. But 18- to 21-year-olds—and adults looking to learn the skills of lifelong learning and responsible citizenship—need the structure of a traditional degree.
Tori Haring-Smith is president of Washington & Jefferson College.