What a College Diploma Doesn’t Tell You

Look in my home office closet. In a box on the top shelf you will find a stack of diplomas and related documents, including a 6th grade diploma. Look further into the box and you will find several certificates indicating the successful completion of workshops, training programs, and certificate programs.

What do these documents mean? Choose any one of these items and find another person with an identical piece of paper. Then ask this question. What do the two of you have in common? Find three or four more people with the same piece of paper and ask again. Do this again until you have interviewed twenty to thirty people. What would you expect to discover from this exercise? With a little perseverance and carefully crafted follow-up questions, you might learn a little more about the meaning of that piece of paper. You may also discover what the paper does not signify.

In the case of my certificates and diplomas, they are historical documents. They only show what I did in the past. At a minimum, barring the possibility that I cheated my way through the program or school, they indicate that I met some minimum threshold of requirements needed to graduate at a given time in history, but there is no guarantee that I still meet those requirements. Graduation requirements, curricula, and the faculty likely change over time, so simply seeing that diploma in hand does not show what I do or do not know in comparison with someone who graduated twenty years earlier or later.

Looking only at the diploma, it indicates a fraction of what a person learned during their time pursuing a degree. One might expect that the diploma is evidence that the person met certain standards for college-level reading, writing, listening, and speaking; as well as competence in certain bodies of knowledge. However, if you think back to your most recent schooling experience, I have little doubt that you can recall people with widely different levels of knowledge and skill who earned the same diploma, even the same grades, in many classes. If three such individuals applied for the same job, I am confident that the hiring body could (often with ease) discern the differences between the three.

While nature contributes to these differences, nurture is no small influence. Self-nurture, in particular, makes a tremendous difference. Consider the following questions as a way to get at much of the learning that goes well beyond what the diploma signifies.

  • What did the students do during their free time?
  • Did they attend optional lectures on campus or in the community?
  • Did they get involved in extracurricular activities?
  • Which books did they read for fun or personal interest?
  • How many books did they read?
  • Did they travel domestically or globally?
  • What sort of volunteer activities occupied their time?
  • What sort of late-night conversations and debates did they have with their classmates?
  • Did they cram for every test and pull all-nighters to finish every paper, or did they spread that work over weeks and months?
  • Did they spend time exploring topics in their professor’s offices, or over lunch or coffee?
  • Did they work with their professors on any research projects?
  • Did they spend time building a personal learning network that extends beyond their campus, finding others who share their intellectual interests?
  • Did they attend any professional conferences, workshops, or related events?
  • How much time did they actually study?
  • Did they do just enough to get the grade, or did they sometimes over-learn and dig deeper into a topic just because it interested them?
  • Did they work during school or the summer? If so, were these jobs anything to make some money, or were they jobs that they used to learn new skills or to better understand a given profession?
  • Did they ask many questions (in their head or out loud) in class and while they were reading?
  • How much did they learn how to learn? Did they develop effective organizational strategies, study skills, problem-solving heuristics, as well as strategies for listening well and communicating persuasively?
  • How did they nurture their emotional growth and development? Did they intentionally find ways to practice postponing gratification, empathy, or the ability to read the nonverbals and emotions of others?
  • What sort of relationships did they develop amid their studies?

These questions help us surface what is different between two people who went to the same school and ended up with the same diploma. There is little doubt that how one answers these questions will determine much about what someone learns. In fact, one’s answers to these questions may well influence the rest of a person’s life much more than simply looking at the grades they earned or the papers on their wall (or in my case, in their closets).

These questions also point to the essence of a truly deep and meaningful higher education experience.