What Does Your Degree Mean?

Gac Filipaj, age 52, just earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Columbia University. Oh, and it took almost 20 years because he’s a janitor there.

“I think I’m going to stay at Columbia,” Filipaj told New York Daily News writer Tracy Connor. “If I can get a job better than cleaning, good. If not, there is nothing shameful about that work.”

My goodness, I could lap up this story with a spoon. I so bristle when I hear someone suggest that there is anything wrong with learning just for the sake of learning. This guy could have done hours of manual labor every day and hit the OTB after work or planted his butt on the couch to watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Instead, it was a little Plato, a bit of Homer and not a lot of sleep.

Now that’s hot.

But equally sizzling is the story of one Shaquille O’Neal, who just earned a doctorate degree in education to go with his bachelor’s and MBA (2005). I’m thinking the guy who is fifth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list has a few bucks in the bank and didn’t need to put in all this work to make a living. How many of us would do that?

Hot, hot, hot.

As we head into graduation season and young men and women ponder next steps, I keep seeing anecdotal confirmation that – as cliché as it sounds – each individual has to forge his or her own path. Because truly there is not one formula. The aforementioned stories are terrific, but I could just as easily trot out some college dropout all-stars – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady GaGa – to make the point.

It’s not about what mommy and daddy want you to do or what major might get you a high-paying job even though you’ll hate it. However, new grads who want to go that route can always hire life coaches in 20 years to try to figure out how to have a meaningful life after giving their all to the conventional or “should” path. That’s a big part of why the coaching profession exists.

But I digress.

While graduation success stories are happening in force, there is something else in the news that is putting a spotlight on a college education in a wholly different way. Enter embattled Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. With headlines blaring the word “scandal” this week, my curiosity was piqued. According to the Wall Street Journal, “ … [A] section about his academic background said he had earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and accounting. In fact, he has only earned a degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting.”

And? I read the story again. Read a few more articles. This was it. This is the scandal.

As Davia Temin wrote in Forbes, “Scott Thompson did NOT deny global warming or the holocaust …he, possibly, misstated his major!”

All of this keeps bringing me to the same question – what does a degree mean?

When I dropped out of college in the 1980s, someone I saw as a bit of a mentor told me that college doesn’t necessarily show how smart you are, it shows you can stick to something. That was illuminating for me, a person who was then returning to college to pursue a degree while working fulltime. While I wouldn’t change a thing about my fragmented college career, it isn’t for everyone.

Since I was already working in my desired field, what my degree meant and still means is that I stuck it out. I like that I got the piece of paper, but I don’t think that’s what makes me a better journalist than the next person. For me, it’s important to keep learning, from everything, and to continually expose myself to other viewpoints.

To Filipaj, the custodian at Columbia, the degree is about depth and acquiring knowledge. For Shaq it’s about making his mother proud and expanding his options post-NBA.

For Zuckerberg, though, does a degree have any meaning? And Gates? Does innovation that changed the world require credentials?

We all have our standards, our measures of success, be they financial or philanthropic or a feeling deep in our soul.

At the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, comedian Jimmy Kimmel ended his routine with these words:

“I also want to thank Mr. Mills, my 10th grade high school history teacher, who said I’d never amount to anything if I kept screwing around in class. Mr. Mills, I’m about to high-five the president of the United States. Eat it, Mills.”

And then there’s that.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.