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.

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.


Can Free, High-Quality Education Get You A Job? 12 June,2012Tina Barseghian

  • Tnuge2001

    These programs are the leading edge of a fundamental change in how college and professional education is perceived and delivered. As in every other fundamental change, the gate keepers, in this case private equity and placement firms,  will support the status quo because their livelihood requires it. The inportance of what people know and what they can do will replace the importance of credentials in the future. Is that Erin Wilson’s “a long time”? What is a long time in a world in which information and capital moves at the speed of light?

    • Anonymous

      This is a great point — another lucrative industry (like textbooks) disrupted.

  • There is no better business than the business of education.  I am not sure I would necessarily want to work for an institution that basis “merit” on a degree from a University.  I would look at the skills and the products produced.  These online courses require a different set of skills – Focus, Self-Learning, Discipline, Asynchronous responses, often more typing and critically thinking the responses.  It also provides a democratization of education and learning for citizens  in developed nations to have access to learning in order to make contributions at home and abroad and to be included in conversations that foster a more multi-cultural experience.  I can also see where this type of learning may actually allow students to spend money on travel and actually learning about specific interests while learning.  For example I would find it far more valuable to learn about issues of over fishing while interviewing fishermen and the slave trade in Senegal while also studying French and learning about the differences between Animism, Christianity, and Islam while surfing in the afternoons.  After six months I could then rent out a flat in Paris, France and take some more online courses to compare and contrast the differences in the policies of France and it’s colonial ties to Senegal while looking at the difference in immigration policies and health care and culture.  It seems like money well spent and a deeper and more enriching experience and would buy a whole lot more for $50,000.  Which student would have a greater understanding of culture, language, and perspective?  The person who sat in a classroom at Harvard or the student being exposed to the realities in the communities who sees and smells all that is real?  

  • While there are certainly great advantages for all folks willing to take advantage of free learning online, relying on the technology to “deliver” comprehensive education is problematic.  For introductory information, sure.  But it can’t replace face time with a professor, study groups, and other hands-on learning.

  •  just as Kyle said I’m impressed that any body can get paid $4404 in a few weeks on the internet. have you seen this page makecash16com

  • Anonymous

    Two things to remember:
    (1) You get what you “pay” for.
    (2) We here in American have always believed that the more expensive something is, the better “quality” it is.


  • Frenchie

    Give acceptance a few years. Things will change. In the meantime – meaning right now – free, quality higher education is a real boon to those with an entrepreneurial spirit. There are plenty of role models out there who are both intellectually and financially successful without an “elite academic pedigree.” And guess what if they are hiring, they will appreciate the same attitude that they have.

  • Anonymous

    Very few university computer science programs teach decent programming skills. They spend much of their course slots teaching things like OS design, file system design, algorithms, etc. Sure, you’ll have a class or two that require programming projects, but blasting out code is not their focus.

    Any young person interested in a career in programming would be wise to use these online educational opportunities to learn the fundamentals and then parlay those new skills into internships and other entry-level opportunities to build up their portfolio. Startups are MUCH more interested in your coding experience than any fancy-pants university degree you might have. These companies need to ship products as fast as possible and could care less about your GPA and where it came from.

  • “…looking for computer engineers…”

    Engineers commonly comprise the backbone work horses of any manufacturing company. They are supposed to tinker and implement. They need a solid knowledge base and skill in their specialities. No great visions are required. 

    Anyone in human resources will admit that it would be great, if there was a formula that allows us to recognize true talent, opposed to skill, before it blossoms. Hence, hiring decisions must be made based on the bottom line. That is, an engineer who graduated from a top-25 program can be relied on bringing a certain skill level to the table. Branding may help with sales.

    Free online teaching may ubiquitously help reduce the number of professors needed to teach introductory classes. In the current economic climate, all US institutions of higher learning are pressured to reduce cost. Why have your local professor teach a class to 100 plus students, if they are better served to watch a high quality video lecture by an Ivy League star in the library or from the comfort of their dorms? This may represent the greatest boon of free online teaching programs. 

    Why would any school in the need of revenue be interested in offering free classes? The offerings return enormous name recognition to the programs and schools. The institutions of higher education mentioned in the article have already recognized this important point.

    Learning in free high-quality online classes certainly is beneficial to any inquisitive and curious person. However, good grades from a solid program remain the bottom line. Good public schools deliver the biggest bang for the buck, at least for in-state students.

    Read more here:


    • Brennan511

      The “trick” is identifying the best [simple!] electronic-device[s…] to smoothly deliver, pause, bookmark -notes- and replay the content  “before they bloom” in whatever condition the visionaries may be; for it is they who will perceive… but who are also sensitive to confusing or difficult technology/codes. 
      And with such standardized components, [see, ready and] apply their leverage where the reward will be the greatest, on the same page [both of them] and …direct?… the work horses to fill in [and gauge] the gaps that can be quickly -if not preemptively- identified and followed in-touch; and equating the filters automatically to un-think, impress and blink.   And cross the sublime where we don’t only rely, but free a world that logically complies[,] in lee of culture already…normally defined.

  • Brennan511

    I think there’s a technical track and method tooooo the actual teaching/lecturing and semi-interactive [male friendly] portion of “learning”.
     It’s in the tune of headset [direct] “listening devices” that tour guides often use -you’ll see a big group on some [walking] tour and suddenly they all start chuckling at something the guide discretely spoke into his microphone, but they keep walking strong, eyes gazing, else-wise  or not.
    If one wanted to give a lecture in a relative place like a computer laden [pub] library -big screen possible- but you wanted to charge a small fee [trolling-distance/invite/dull?], or simply didn’t want to have to talk loudly or be crowded –behind a cool glass wall, hands gesturing to the wide  eyed, _keyed in_, [youtube safety] equally discrete or eager AUDIENCE with their [own] push-button audio & book-marks– creating tangents in the mind that can be instantly! inverted! pencil hitting paper like like an auto-cad;;; and then the interactive daydream can be queued back in, when you notice or sense the shuffle of interest, the speaker’s [plural maybe] sudden sharp glance [that intrigued passer-by and the planets all line up…] as he sends-by-braille his own extra active INSTANT;[!!!:] text-post [page 101 CH-A,B,C+] to your easy reading-device with simple but effective 3G beaming PICTURES & numbers, and suddenly the inception takes a right angle at spectrum’s more boring than you could possibly imagine [but an instant snack and some meditative fresh air bring you back! splash {stillll listening}] and the speaker -“glad to see” …you refreshed- makes a reflection so deep into your mind you have to go outside and laugh at the brilliance that the mundane has revealed [hey, is this NPR?] , BUT all this time YOU’RE STILL LISTENING!!  pressing replay replay… replay, until something only someone like you could understand secretly clicks. So you call a taxi get on a plane parachute out at 27,000 ft and you are free! baby. But the voices keep going and you think about seeing a doctor [Stanford studies? TED?] but then you realize that YOU ARE ONE. just schedule for a reality check and don’t forget the rip-cord, unless you’ve got a flying squirrel suit [I saw it online, oh yeah, sure…] and then stretch your  legs, smile your brow, and if she want’s some popcorn, be generous! this costs nothing [:yet;) Because you’re an expert -darn it- and people trust you, But if you’v got the eye and you’re a human, or a robot, that’s cool -that’s what the plate glass is for [note to self; bring a jet pack and instant disguise] now breath, that’s rite, you’re going fishing! for mythical creatures that will actually reel you -AND US- in. And while the nerds are playing god with bubbles.troubles, you are sailing through the stratosphere with a nice lunch and an incredibly comfortable seat and CLEAN UNDERWEAR-!-!-, stranger than fiction, hindsight is CLEAR removed from affliction, in a hyper orbit project and decision, subject and conviction. You and I are on a map, prospect the pure vision, pre-play your true mission ANd YeT EJECT the differential-student who is trapped  in this Very tech dis-fission, the map prevents wit-loophole and heals the incision and converge in the environment where x isn’t and but truth listens.

  • Christopher Pluhar

    Having taught online courses, I can confidently say that the idea that they will revolutionize education is pie in the sky.  These courses exist because students want them for convenience, not because anyone thinks students learn better or more.  They are cheap to offer and so the PROFIT MARGIN IS HIGHER.  Online learning will democratize education as much as books did.  How popular is it for people to hang out at the library and read a civilization’s worth of learning??  By the way, how can you tell that the person on the other end of that internet connection is really who they say they are?  I caught 10% of my online students cheating on homework assignments by plagiarism.  Of course I could not tell how many were doing their own work.  See,, etc.

    Wake up folks.  A lifetime of learning is already available to practically anyone willing to seek it out: the library, our publicly-funded education system, educational television and radio programming, the person next door who knows something you don’t, ….  And for some reason, these are judged negatively by society.  This is the essential problem, not the lack of access.

    The ultimate determinants in education: the attitude of the student and the attitude of the educator.

  • Macpics11

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

    Not necessarily. But, being able to read, write, and THINK CRITICALLY surely couldn’t hurt!

  • Brennan511

    So imagine the scales of justice, blind but traditionally fair. Now imagine America’s geographic great divide and the cultural normative values and attitudes there in and where without… normative balance yet blind confidence or denial; less than 1% on either side form a highly imbalanced X that WE should not see, not even sympathetically, because if it exists, if it remains in the unbalanced TIME SPACE, age x location, reality in it’s or “the” [it’s more alien than traditional humanity and our normal reactions nor understanding can wish to accept] wrong place at the wrong time. and sweet inspiration conspires with catatonic action.
    So the highly unbalanced unjust scales within high value THOUGHT and Physical $pirit… enables….[!] one’s reality to sink to the bottom ambiguously and suffer.,. While ones ghostly spirit may [like a BLACK SWAN] to climb the other side of this highly rare and therefore transparent or unbelievably slippery slope and from the unjust heights see both the big picture and the unbelievably low numerator [denominator, whatever] it is a value, and it is of imperative global justice, to “automatically fix/PREVENT”. Dissonant wise it doesn’t really seem fixable. it’s like a convergence through the eye of the needle and that means you! But it’s Spirituality and Technology working together, not on the verge but with, or without, true identity or automatic silent navigation, preventing invisible pressure that is theoretically logical and therefore spiritually mechanical which looks through the key hole to general happiness and the peaceful vehicles and nurtured resources to get us there on a level plane, however many parallel and just beams or worlds there may be.
    Don’t even “think” it, just see the QUANTITY and re-address the QUALITY in Time & Space where X reflects ACROSS in level and LIGHTHEARTED respect & face.
     Clear & good thoughts will be the reward, but “the Big Letter” [le M.C.] is the pen and not the word. Spoken once our youthful feelings have normally cured, and virtue is brightly endured. annyt and love your neighbor the shaman softly heard, celestial doves with tempered nerves, the sound of nothing as hearts converge, un-lost from nowhere our minds are purged, and perched on empathy the light deserved, and dawning on the future a delight to observe , balanced beams and knot a verb… 😉
    don’t worry, be happy. 🙂

    brennanmoriarty’s Webcam Video from June 16, 2012 01:31 PM

  • Susan

    After reading eveyone’s comments I wonder how everyone feels about what the qualifications should be for faculty who teach on-line.  Not all on-line courses are the same. 


  • Pingback: Faces of the New Higher Ed: Learning By Working | MindShift()

  • Brad Arnold

    That’s OK, because there is about to be a paradigm shift, where AI (and ASI) do the work, and the traits and background of ideal applicants will be the issue.

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