Degrees of Durability and the New World of Credentialing

Those that believe a higher education degree is becoming increasingly superfluous make reference to the fact that 19 of the top 100 chief executives in the Fortune 500 lack college degrees.
In consideration of that, a recent U.S. News analysis of the Fortune 500 CEOs reports that many of those CEOs who hold academic degrees choose not to mention their degree as among their achievements in their corporate biographies.

Others refer to famous college “opt-outs” such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—who have cited the stifling nature to their creativity and influence when stuck within the framework of the traditional higher education institution.

Indeed, there is an increasing acknowledgment of formal learning environments starting to crumble as open-resource options for self-learning expand and more learners find new educational pathways. Some proffer that career advancement will be driven by performance, not by a degree.

Recent data somewhat weakens that argument. The State Higher Education Executive Officers offer evidence of the value of a college degree in terms of future earnings potential. Their report, “The Economic Benefit of Postsecondary Degrees: A State and National Level Analysis,” concludes that, despite substantial variations across states and disciplines, “postsecondary-degree attainment clearly results in higher earnings for the vast majority of individuals in all 50 states.” The report further concludes, “Almost without exception, each successive level of higher educational attainment yields additional economic benefits.”

However, some are reluctant to ascribe superiority of college level-jobs to positions that do not require degrees. Andrew Sum, director of the Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies, notes that many construction, manufacturing and other traditionally blue-collar jobs often pay competitively or more than some positions held by college-educated employees. According to Sum, “There’s a lot of variability around the earnings power of college degrees, depending on what type of degree you get and the job market.”

For those who see the strong link between the pursuit of a college degree and career advancement there might be some confounding evidence.

In their research for their book Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia found that 45% of the students surveyed admitted they had no significant gains in knowledge after two years of college.

And in terms of completing the degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education, well over 40% of entering full-time students fail to earn a diploma within six years. This may be related to evidence showing remarkably low levels of student academic effort as measured by their use of time.

Recent survey data might raise some eyebrows about the durability of the degree. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA reports in a recent survey that only 57% of first-year students were satisfied with the relevance of their coursework to everyday life. The most common response of first-year students when asked what reasons were very important for going to college was “to be able to get a better job” (84.7%), while others cited “to get training for a specific career” (77.6%).

Some observe that the durability of the bachelor’s degree has been taking a downward slide for decades. Before 1983, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in just about any subject “opened up lots of jobs,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “You could get a B.A. in history and become an accountant. Then the economy underwent a cultural shift.” According to Carnevale, “I was raised to think what you needed was a college degree … that’s not the game anymore … it’s what you major in.”

Despite the fact that college enrollments have hit record levels, most young adults in the U.S. do not attend a four-year college, and the main barrier appears to be financial. A Pew Research Center survey conducted recently, revealed that among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, 48% say they can’t afford to go to college. The survey also indicated that an even larger majority, 75%, thinks college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. With cost a significant obstacle to earning a degree, the free education offered by edX, for example, is extremely attractive.

Changes ahead

Does all this portend systemic and structural changes for higher education? Is the college degree, so etched in our minds as the apotheosis of the higher education experience an artifact—an outdated higher education credential?

Some might suggest that credential inflation, the devaluation of academic credentials over time and a corresponding decrease in the expected advantage given a degree-holder in the job market, foretells the demise of the degree.

The monopoly that colleges have on the only units of learning that can be assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market (i.e., college credits) may be vanishing the way of Standard Oil and U.S. Steel.

Some predict that the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly. MOOCs can potentially enrich education for students, especially the cash-strapped, and those dissatisfied with what their own colleges are offering.

Presaging these developments may be the nonprofit Saylor Foundation which recently struck a deal where students completing its free online courses can, for a small fee, take exams to earn credit at Excelsior College, a regionally accredited nonprofit online institution.

In that regard, the American Council on Education recently announced a pilot program to look at whether some MOOCs offered through Coursera resemble conventional college classes enough to offer their students credit. The ACE College Credit Recommendation Service focuses on certifying training courses offered outside of traditional colleges, for which students might want college credit.

Last year, StraighterLine, a provider of low-cost online courses, became one of the first online institutions to win inclusion in the recommendation service. The ACE College Credit Recommendation Service has evaluated and recommended college credit for 55 StraighterLine courses.

A further sign of change affecting the academic enterprise could be the end of the credit hour, higher education’s prevailing unit of measure. This century old time-based reference for measuring educational attainment used by American universities and colleges is under serious scrutiny by its creator, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In rethinking the value of the Carnegie Unit, a likely alternative may be a standardized unit of measure around competency rather than time spent in class. The effects of changing the credit hour as the basic unit of measure could be considerable since the credit hour drives student and faculty workloads, schedules, financial aid, and degree requirements.

Possible future scenarios

The erosion of the college credit monopoly, the devaluation of the degree and the rise of new forms of credentialing suggest a generation of students and higher education institutions somewhat different than the previous generation.

Consider a higher learning environment where students create their own academic portfolios and shape their educational experience around their own interests and career goals—where credit hours are replaced with specific “learning certificates” whose value is determined by the job market.

Serving these students would be a new generation of higher education institutions that take the lead in offering concentrated, targeted educational certificates. Open access to courses with meaningful credentials and a renewed emphasis on practical knowledge—and full integration within the world of work would be characteristic of the next-generation academic enterprise.

Corresponding to this would be a job market where potential employees are identified based on their achievement and demonstrated competency in specific courses and subject areas—where links, portfolios and experience constitute the new resume, and where being hired is contingent on whether the job candidate has acquired the appropriate knowledge for the right purpose at the right time for that employer.

All of this calls into question whether higher learning is more than just taking classes–more than subject content. Does its value lie in the opportunity for membership in a learning community or is it solely a means to secure a job after graduation? Is it realistic to assume that the college undergraduate degree is an essential prerequisite to being an “educated” person and a passport to the world of work?

Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to “provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere,” lays out his thoughts on the future of education in his book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined. In the book, Khan advocates for a separation of universities’ teaching and credentialing roles.

Others, such as economist Robert B. Reich argue for more investment in apprentice-based educational programs, which would offer an alternative to the bachelor’s degree.

It may be only a matter of time before some kind of course mastery certificate becomes the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Putting together a customized educational experience using digital textbooks, enrolling with little or no cost in online courses from top university faculty, taking part in collaborative learning, and conferring of documentation from top universities on subject mastery is within everyone’s reach today.

For some higher education institutions, this shifting terrain may be too much change in too short a period. But, with technology advancing at breakneck speed, adjusting nimbly to new forms of communication is essential. Recall that only 10 years ago Facebook did not exist, and those approaching college age now have grown up living a major part of their social lives online.

A power shift is in the offing, and perhaps higher education institutional leaders might heed the words of Peter Drucker when he reminded us, “Whenever change outside of an organization is greater than change within an organization, that organization will ultimately fail.”

Philip DiSalvio is dean of College of Advancing and Professional Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.


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