Can Free, High-Quality Education Get You A Job?

Flickr:M.Keefe

By Katrina Schwartz

The sudden growth of free, top-shelf online education sites has the potential to democratize high-caliber education that's long been reserved for only those who could afford it.

But as these new sites begin to blaze a new path to the possibility of a level playing field, it's still unclear whether taking courses in subjects like artificial intelligence or game theory will eventually lead to employment.

Are certificates of online course completion from venerable institutions viable substitutes for diplomas and degrees from the same brick-and-mortar four-year universities? Though professors who teach these Massive Open Online Courses are well respected in their fields, is their stamp of approval enough to land a job?

If any job market would be receptive to a non-traditional educational path, one might think it would be Silicon Valley. There are plenty of examples of tech tycoons like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of school or otherwise bucked the system only to become wildly successful. It’s a hub that values creativity and technical skills and might seem a likely environment where a company might be willing to hire a person on the basis of their knowledge rather than where where they got their degree.

If that's somewhere on the horizon, it's not necessarily happening yet. When contacted about these online education sites -- courses taught by professors at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley -- many companies directly refused to talk about how their human resources departments would view a non-traditional candidate. Many had never even heard of Coursera, edX, or Udacity.

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But recruiters who did agree to go on the record said that, for the most part, companies big and small looking for computer engineers want employees with college degrees from schools known for their computer science programs. “I couldn’t personally help them,” said Robert Greene, founder of technical recruiting firm GreeneSearch, when he heard the profile of a potential job applicant who had taken all the courses for a computer science degree, from a free site like Coursera or edX. “I work with startups so they want someone with experience and if not that, then a degree from a top school,” he said.

In fact, for start-ups, it’s especially important for programmers to have high pedigrees because those big-name degrees play a big role in acquisition negotiations, he said. “They will value at a top notch engineer at $1 to $3 million in evaluation,” said Erin Wilson, division manager of Jobspring Partners, Silicon Valley. “In that sense I think Coursera will take a long time to catch up to a top-notch degree." Wilson himself is enrolled in a Coursera Computer Science 101 class -- just for fun. He’s “stoked” to learn from Stanford professors, but has no illusions that it will lead him to a different job.

Still, Wilson said there are anomalies in the Valley -- not all great programmers went to the top 25 computer science schools. And although he doesn’t think that getting in the door will be easy without an official degree of some kind, he said the idea that down the road when educational models are less fixed, a hard worker with a free online education that comes with practical skills could make the cut.

In the meantime, large, well-established can afford to be picky – places like Google, Groupon and Facebook mostly take applicants from the top 25 computer science programs. Wilson said there’s an “element of elitism in the Valley” that would be hard to overcome.

The skepticism was palpable from those interviewed who know the Silicon Valley job market well. There’s a sense that free education could not be great education. “If you are a smart student some school will take you and you’ll get a degree,” Greene said. “In the Valley, the education is usually a pretty good barometer.”

Companies in finance and banking had similar responses. “Generally we would not look at someone without college experience,” said Rebecca McGovern, executive assistant at the global private investment firm H.I.G Capitol, and the person in charge of recruiting for their San Francisco office. “A college degree is very fundamental -- a weeding out process,” she added. She said no H.I.G office would take someone without a four-year degree.

It’s possible that these nascent education sites, many of which offer more than computer science and engineering classes, are too new to have gained traction. Instead, they are being confused with for-profit certificate programs that don’t always have a good reputation.

In this anecdotal and limited survey, the current conclusion seems to be that employers don’t trust these new educational sites yet. Regardless of the names behind them -- whether the school or the professor -- the four-year degree and the on-campus experience are still highly critical.

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