Will a portfolio replace a college degree?

by Grace

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.

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14 Comments to “Will a portfolio replace a college degree?”

  1. Oy, this is such a FAD right now in higher ed. My school purchased this expensive portfolio software and is trying to get all the students to use it. The problem is, the employers could care less, except in certain fields like advertising. In my field, employers have long used their own tests to judge candidates (even senior people) and often ask candidate to write code in front of the interviewer.

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  2. “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.”

    There was such a thing as secretarial school.

    One of my cousins did a university degree in the hospitality field (I forget the exact name of the major). She makes a nice living doing event organizing. On the one hand, a university degree in party planning sounds like overkill. On the other hand, having an actual 4-year degree probably gives her more security, in case she should ever need to change fields.

    “The problem is, the employers could care less, except in certain fields like advertising.”

    Right. Nobody wants to wade through your 20-page term paper.

    “Germany also has extensive tracking, and getting into the universities is extremely competitive.”

    No kidding. My sister is married to a German and my nephew got tracked out of the university option in 4th grade in Germany. And he’s a straight-A student in a ritzy suburban school district in the US. He’ll have a much easier time getting into a tolerable college in the US, but they’ll have to pay.

    I don’t have the German system all figured out, but as I understand it, university is super academic, but there’s a step down from that that is more vocational and doesn’t require starting Latin in grade school, as the real university does. My sister and her husband both attended a German business college, which is in that more vocational category (I think it’s called a hochschule). It was pretty rigorous, though. Here in the US, we often combine those two categories (the super academic university and the more vocational college) in a single institution that teaches everything from classics to hotel management.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hochschule

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  3. I was skimming through this and getting dizzy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Germany

    Sample: “German secondary education includes five types of school.”

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  4. I just updated the post with a link to a new report that says “certificates are the fastest-growing postsecondary credential awarded and have demonstrated increasing clout … in the labor market”. Haven’t read the whole thing yet.

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  5. Maybe the higher education bubble will force the issue, making certificates a more acceptable option for more people and to employers. What are the other alternatives as fewer kids can afford traditional college? I’m sure there are more alternatives, but this one seems reasonably attractive.

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  6. “There was such a thing as secretarial school.”

    I have a relataive who went to secretarial school back in the ’70s after she graduated with a degree in something like marketing or English. (Katherine Gibbs – I just Googled it and found out it closed.) The skills she learned helped her in her first jobs out of college, but she NEVER included it in her resume.

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  7. “… a single institution that teaches everything from classics to hotel management”

    Yeah, maybe that’s one of the problems with the US higher education system. But I get the part about wanting a 4-year degree just in case you’ll need it later on. Most parents have that mentality, but perhaps that will change.

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  8. Bonnie – I was probably not as clear as I should have been in my post, but what I was referring to in my post are portfolios (of the future) composed of credentials that could be certificates, “badges”, experience, and/ traditional examples of work. The certificates in the linked report are ones that may replace a college degree, be a step on the way to a degree, or be acquired after a degree. I guess this terminology can be confusing, meaning different things in different contexts.

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  9. Bonnie said:

    “When did they add the Latin requirement?? I went to gymnasium in Germany in the early 70′s – no Latin then.”

    I’m not sure. When my sister did a study abroad in Hamburg in the 90s, they had Latin in high school (not sure if it was a requirement).

    My current information about the Latin requirement is from the Munich area. My sister is well-connected with the German school system via in-laws, and at least for the moment, the Latin seems to be the really make-or-break difference between the gymnasium track and whatever my nephew qualified for. He’s in a US school right now, and my sister has been investigating doing Latin with him to keep him on track. (I recommended the Latin for Children series that my daughter had in 4th grade, because she seems to have learned a lot with relatively little pain.)

    “Gymnasium, btw, is the university-bound track. In those days, tracking was based on a test taken before the 5th grade. I think they have reformed that system though. And yes, it is mind-boggling. When I was working at University of Karlsruhe, some grad students tried to explain, and ended up drawing lots of flow charts – and still I didn’t understand!”

    By the way, to qualify for graduation from hochschule with American credentials, at least back in the 90s, you needed two (two!!!) years of American college to serve as the equivalent of a German high school diploma. I suppose that’s easy for them to administer, but it ignores the mind-boggling diversity of US college programs.

    Grace said:

    “The skills she learned helped her in her first jobs out of college, but she NEVER included it in her resume.”

    That was from the “Don’t tell them you know how to type” era, wasn’t it?

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  10. “That was from the “Don’t tell them you know how to type” era, wasn’t it?”

    I lived in that era, and was always sensitive about admitting I could type better than most men could. One incident sticks in my mind. The first time I showed up at a new location for my latest assignment as a geologist, the receptionist assumed I was a “Kelly girl” and almost directed me to the wrong department.

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  11. Isn’t that weird? Nowadays, not being able to type is unthinkable in a white collar type (unless they’ve got some major physical disability).

    One of my favorite writers is Florence King (Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady). When she was trying to establish herself as a writer in the 1950s, she did a lot of time doing secretarial work. She worked for a lot of successful businessmen who were practically illiterate. You could hide that a lot better in the good old days, with a secretary to cover for you. Nowadays, there’s a much stronger tilt toward verbal ability.

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  12. It is still an issue in the medical world. Physicians think that typing is absolutely demeaning. This has been a big factor in their unwillingness to accept electronic medical records. With new mobile interfaces that have voice recognition, there has been greater acceptance. For a doctor, that experience is closer to the traditional model of dictating notes to be coded with billing codes later on.

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  13. I’m trying to remember, but I think the only doctor I visit who types into her medical records device is a female.

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  14. “I’m trying to remember, but I think the only doctor I visit who types into her medical records device is a female.”

    I think I’ve seen the same thing.

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