University of Phoenix graduation ceremony
University of Phoenix graduation ceremony

Are Traditional Degrees More Meaningful Than Their Online Counterparts?

By CJ McClanahan 


I’m going to say a phrase, and I want you to jot down the first thoughts that come to mind – don’t overthink it, just go with your gut.

The University of Phoenix...

What did you come up with?

If you’re like most people I’ve talked with, your list might look a lot like the following:

  • 100% online classes with no real professors
  • Education for those unable to get into “regular” college
  • Easy to earn a degree
  • Inexpensive alternative to traditional degree.
  • Not a real degree, or at least skepticism if it’s accreditation.

For a long time I had a similar response. And then a couple years ago I was asked to address the graduating class of University of Phoenix at their Indianapolis campus (which has since shutdown).

But before I get into how this experience changed my outlook what it takes to earn a degree, you should know about the role education has played in my life.

My Collegiate Experience

Growing up, I had two loving parents, both of who earned college degrees from a major state school (U.Nebraska). They raised my brother and I in an environment where learning was highly emphasized. We were expected to get good grades, and we were given the resources necessary to make that a reality.

Though we moved across the country when I was in high school, the schools I attended were of high regard in the public education system – George Washington in Denver, Colorado and Lawrence North in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I had great teachers and a group of friends from similar backgrounds, and ALL of us would be attending college.

After I graduated high school, I attended Indiana University and enrolled in the Kelley School of Business. Though not as expensive at the time as it is today, my parents paid for about 90% of all cost. I never had to stress out about making a tuition payment or covering rent.

And although classes were challenging, that was all I had to worry about, and I was able to really focus on making good grades.

In addition, I was a member of a fraternity, where I partied a ton and was involved in a bunch of community activities in my free time. Earning the degree didn’t seem like that big of a deal because it was expected and all of my peers where graduating as well.

None of my family members came to my graduation ceremony, of which, I nearly missed because of wicked hungover from the previous night’s heavy drinking.

At 22 years old, I was fortunate to graduate with zero debt to my name. I even decided to attend law school, then dropped out a year later. 

To be clear, earning my bachelors degree wasn’t a total a cake walk, I had chosen a top-tier school after all. But in retrospect, it could have been a lot more difficult.

Totally Different Worlds

Now, let’s look at the profile of a typical University of Phoenix student.

  • The average student is 34 years old
  • 76% of students are juggling employment while there are attending school
  • 67% of the students have dependents
  • 60% of students are the first person in their family to attend college
  • 46% of students come from a minority background

When you compare the average UP student to me, it’s fair to say that they've had to overcome quite a lot more than I did to earn a college degree. My school may have been "harder", but my life as a student was far from it (though I was diagnosed with clinical depression toward the end... but that's another article).

In between classes and studying, I was going to the movies, having fun with friends, and throwing back beers. Yet, for three-quarters of University of Phoenix students, that time is spent working a full-time job to support a family.

Clearly, we come from two, totally different worlds.

Challenging the Status Quo

Being asked to be address the 2016 graduating class made me see just how privileged I really was. This was not a room filled with mostly privileged young students who were merely checking a box on their way to a successful career.

Instead, I would be witnessing courageous men and women who had overcome the odds to earn a degree that would absolutely change their lives.

These graduates were elated to be earning degrees. The huge room at the convention center was packed with proud parents screaming at the top of their lungs to when their loved one walked across the podium and received their diploma. 

Being the commencement speaker for a college I didn’t attend, for a student body that doesn’t resemble me at all, taught me such a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

As Booker T. Washington pointed so accurately over a century years ago, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome."