If we are experiencing a higher education bubble, characterized by skyrocketing costs for degrees of questionable value that are increasingly only affordable by assuming growing amounts of debt, what comes after the bubble bursts? Glenn Reynolds writes about how portfolios could replace some degrees as the credential of choice for employment.
Another opportunity exists in alternative methods of certifying knowledge. A college diploma serves as a basic signifier of its holder’s basic competence, but with costs running well into the six figures, it’s an awfully expensive credential.
MIT/Harvard will start certifying online students, and that may be just the beginning. The Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson suggests that people should accumulate knowledge in life, then build a portfolio that will directly demonstrate their knowledge to future employers. He calls it savoir faire: (Literally: “know how to do.”)
One sign of a higher education bubble is that too many unprepared high school graduates are enrolling in college. So instead of enrolling in a four-year degree program that will leave him paying back loans for twenty years or more, it might make more sense for a student to focus on the key skills needed for his career of choice. He could then create a portfolio of credentials or “badges” that demonstrates his capabilities for a job in technology, customer service, healthcare, human resources, or any number of fields. This makes more sense than the broken system we have now, where an urban studies major struggles to pay back student loans while working as an administrative assistant.
It’s hard to predict exactly how such a significant evolution would take place, but it might be useful to remember the days when it was rare that want ads for administrative staff included “college degree preferred” in their requirements. That change probably happened over twenty years or more, but the move to a new credentialing system could take less time.
Writing is one skill that could benefit from such a change. I can see how high school graduates could become better writers by taking a few targeted courses instead of spending most of four or five years
studying partying on a typical college campus. Employers should welcome this new type of credentialing since they now have a difficult time finding qualified employees to hire among recent college graduates.
ADDED: A new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says that certificates are the fastest-growing postsecondary credential awarded and have demonstrated increasing clout … in the labor market.