Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Value of a College Degree

Dean of Admissions at M.I.T. Resigns - New York Times:

Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became famous for urging stressed-out students competing for elite colleges to calm down and stop trying to be perfect. But today she admitted that she had fabricated her own academic educational credentials, and resigned after nearly three decades at the university.

Ms. Jones on various occasions had represented herself as having degrees from Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but she had no degrees from any of those places, said Phillip L. Clay, the chancellor of M.I.T.
If this was a movie, the whole theme would be how a hardworking woman without a degree managed to rise through the ranks. At the end of the movie, she would make a impassioned speech, everyone would forgive her, and she would keep her job... but this is real life. Despite doing an apparently excellent job, she was forced to resign.

The whole story raises a pretty good question: What is the value of a college degree if someone without it was able to rise so high in a competitive school like MIT?

The story certainly lends credence to the theory that college doesn't actually add much academic value (for a lot of careers, not all) and is nothing more than a way to vet for intelligence and perseverance.

Of course many people will argue that its not an issue of whether she had a degree or not, but an issue of integrity. Do you really believe that she would of even got her foot in the door if she had been honest about having a degree?

If she is smart, she will launch her own consulting company that helps students get into the colleges of her choice. She has already written one book, perhaps now she will write another exposing the dirty little secrets of college admissions.


Denever said...

"Do you really believe that she would of even got her foot in the door if she had been honest about having a degree?"

Actually, yeah, I do. Things were different in higher ed 28 years ago. A lot of things were done in a much more relaxed fashion back then because the competition was less fierce and a smaller portion of the population was attending college then.

I think she not only could have gotten her foot in the door, but if she'd come clean sooner, she might have had the option of finishing a degree while she worked and then her career would have continued pretty much as it did, though it might have taken her longer to get to the top.

This really is about integrity, not about qualifications. I don't think most people seriously believe that anyone needs a college degree for most jobs. It is a credentialing process. But that's where we are.

Complaining that the credential was unnecessary for that job is like saying, "But I could have written a brilliant paper myself if I'd had more time" after you get caught plagiarizing. What you could have done isn't the point when you go into the game knowing what the rules and requirements are and you choose to violate them.

Parentalcation said...

I agree that their is an integrity issue, but I doubt that without a college degree she would of progressed much pass clerical work, even back then.

I suppose my point is that there is a pathological emphasis on getting a degree, which causes unrealistic expectations and devalues jobs that don't require a degree.

I don't believe in the one size fits everyone culture of higher education that pervades our country.

Parentalcation said...

I agree that there...

Denever said...

I'll keep looking, but so far I haven't seen anything about whether a degree was actually required for the very first job she had, or whether she just assumed that claiming a degree would improve her chances of getting the job.

Apparently, though, she kept inflating her credentials as the years went on, eventually claiming that she had a Ph.D. That suggests that it was her own distorted idea of what she had to do to be considered worthy that was driving her. The fact that she called attention to herself by writing a book in which she talks about integrity indicates that she also has a real self-destructive streak.

Denever said...


Apparently I was wrong about the Ph.D. - can't recall where I read that - but she did claim to have a degree from Albany Medical College (whether that means an M.D. or only a B.S., I don't know).

But here's the confirmation of what I suspected, from the MIT newspaper:

>>In 1979, Jones took a secretarial job in the Admissions Office that [Chancellor] Clay described as "a very junior entry level position [that] did not require a bachelor's degree." Jones, however, listed multiple degrees on her résumé.<<

So, to bring this back to where we started, there's no reason to think she couldn't have gotten that foot in the door without lying *and* without a degree.

allen said...

So, to bring this back to where we started, there's no reason to think she couldn't have gotten that foot in the door without lying *and* without a degree.

As a typewriter pilot, yeah. But anything much higher then that and even way back in those prehistoric days you couldn't get a management job with anything less then a bachelors anywhere but facilities management.

That might not have been uniform nationwide but the exceptions would have been getting rarer and rarer. At a top-tier institution like MIT I'd be surprised if they were promoting non-degreed personnel to management positions even back then. MIT earned its reputation functionally but that doesn't necessarily preclude being vulnerable to attractive fads or false expectations.

Denever said...

A foot in the door is a foot in the door. The fact is that she started out in a job that didn't require a degree, she got to know higher-placed people at MIT, and they kept promoting her, for whatever reason.

Everything else is just us speculating. I graduated from college the same year Jones was hired, and I remember the job market then - on and off campus - and that's what I'm basing my speculation on.

allen said...

Why don't we bow to the lady's own estimation of the situation? If it was a foot in the door and a demonstrated ability to do the job the requirement for promotion, why lie? Why endanger everything you work hard to accomplish by an unnecessary lie?

Ms. Jones obviously thought it was necessary to lie to obtain her promotions because that's what she did. Assuming she's not a compulsive liar, she didn't see any alternative to lying to obtain a promotion her history shows her to have been fully fit to perform.

If her promotions had been due entirely to her demonstrated competence then lying about her education would have been a distinctly stupid thing to do. It seems unlikely that she was exceptionally capable in her job but lacked the judgment to understand the certain result of being, inevitably, found out.