Salary.com recently asked 1,500 people about the cost of higher education. Only 61 percent said it’s a good value while 35 percent specifically said that college isn’t worth the expense.1 Another 43 percent said a college degree isn’t necessary to succeed in life.2
Out of School, Not Yet Into the Workforce
Recent experience may be informing their responses. A briefing paper from the Economic Policy Institute3 found that 7.2 percent of recent college graduates were unemployed and 14.9 percent were underemployed — i.e., working, but not making enough to cover bills and repay loans — as of last May. Both of those numbers are up from just 5.5 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively, during the same period in 2007.
Dissatisfaction with the cost and relative value of higher learning has some people seeking new and cheaper pathways that connect the dots between study, classwork, and tangible workplace value. The credentialing process is changing in response.
Making Education Measurable
While it’s true that college is about much more than training to get a job, there’s no disputing that the economic disconnect facing recent grads, who are saddled with an average of $29,0004 in loans, has created a new reality in which students have become more interested in the actual ROI of higher education.
The shift comes as tailored learning options have begun to emerge. From associate certificates to Udacity’s heavily marketed “nanodegrees” to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the variety of ways students can gain valued knowledge has blossomed in recent years. Members of the high school class of 2020 are just as likely to string together credentials that tell a story about their journey to mastery than they are to sign up for a four-year degree program.
Think of what that might mean. A student aiming for a computer science career could start with a nanodegree in Android application development, paid for by part-time work as a programming tutor to peers. Then, upon completion, she might apply to a prestigious four-year institution with a reputation for placing students in high-paying programming jobs.
Solving the Portfolio Problem
For this student and others like her, there is no silver bullet degree. She’s building a portfolio instead, and as such, needs an infrastructure that demonstrates the workplace value of all that she’s achieved as a student. We need three things in order to bring this idea to life:
- A common format everyone — even a machine — can understand. Many industries use XML (eXtensible Markup Language) to render complex information such as contracts and financial statements in a standard digital format. Imagine if we did the same for credentials? Digital information in a diploma and accompanying transcript would be perfectly compatible with the completion data encoded in a nanodegree or MOOC certificate.
- Improved transferability between institutions. Right now, registrars are saddled with the task of decoding and awarding credits from courses completed elsewhere. The rise of alternative credentials will only make this process more difficult, unless we find ways to agree on common methods for classifying achievement. Recent efforts in this area include a call for what’s known as a Postsecondary Achievement Report, or PAR.
- Digital standards that make assessment and sharing simple. Finally, we need to digitize the entire transcript and make it both secure and shareable using common technology. That way, any coursework, from any credentialing program, can be added to the system in order to provide a comprehensive, browser-accessible view of a student’s educational achievements.
While the four-year degree is still alive and well, there’s little doubt that the business of education is changing. We can make it better by giving students the infrastructure to compile certifications into a detailed, portable, and easily assessed portfolio that demonstrates mastery that employers will want to pay for.
Fortunately, much of the work needed to make this a reality is already underway. Now all we need is the will to complete it.