The cost of an undergraduate degree at an ivy-league university can cost a quarter million dollars or more when everything is included. Even other elite intuitions of learning, like MIT, cost about $225,000 or about 75% more than the national average non-profit four-year college tuition. Conversely, we could engage in more than 2,000 or so of their courses on their site, for free.

So…what is the difference?

When we participate in formal education, we pay tuition, plus we pay with a focus on compliance. Traditional education requires that students trade in freedom of choice, coerced by tests and exams. And what do we get? Hopefully, we get an ‘A’ and we also get a certificate or diploma.

The power of that diploma is extraordinary. Students (and/or their families) will go a lifetime in debt to get that diploma or certificate to literally hang that piece of paper on the wall. We will make choices about time and focus and geography for that diploma, ignoring what is presumably possible in exchange for the certainty of acquiring that piece of paper.

Learning, on the other hand, is self-directed. Learning is not about changing our grade; it is about changing the way we view the world. Learning is voluntary. Learning is always available, and it compounds, because once we have acquired it, we can use it repeatedly.

Most adults in the United States read no more than a book a year. That is because books are not assigned after we have got your work done. Interesting, even having books available on-line, for convenience, has not changed that metric much.

We are surrounded by chances to learn, and yet, unless it is sugar coated or sold in the guise of earning a scarce credential, most of us would rather click on another link and swipe on another video instead. It is easier than the alternative!

There are exceptions, however. People who have chosen to be high performers. Doctors, lawyers, developers, programmers, and leaders who choose to make a difference in this world for themselves and their families understand that continuous learning is at the heart of what they will need to do.

The question we learn to ask from an early age is “Will that be on the exam?” If we need to ask that before we encounter useful ideas, we have been trapped in antiquated thinking. It is never been easier to level up, but the diploma (paper) may not be as important (to life as a whole) as we have been led to believe.

A real-life example… A Phd came into my office to discuss a situation. As the meeting progressed, I noticed he kept looking at the ASQ Fellow Award and ASQ Grant Medalist Award hanging on the wall. When the meeting was over, our eyes locked. He became very serious as he commented that he would gladly trade his Phd for either of these awards. This was a sobering thought which stunned me for a moment.

What is the difference? Both come after applied knowledge. The Phd was the result of hard work and expense surrounding the university curriculum. The ASQ Fellow and Grant Medalist awards were the result of continuous learning and applying that knowledge.

An interesting comparison so think about the power in that example.