10 Steps to Disrupting a College Degree Monopoly

You find what looks like a dream job that perfectly aligns with your experience, and you are excited to apply. You know the field inside and out, so you are disappointed after three weeks when you don’t hear from the company. In itself, this is not that unusual. Maybe there was a strong internal candidate. Maybe they decided not to move forward with the position. Or, perhaps they just had an especially talented group of applicants. After a month, you receive a letter thanking you for applying, but explaining that you would not be considered for the job. You called the human resources office with the hope of learning from this experience. It turns out that your application was never passed on to the search team because you didn’t have the “minimum of a master’s degree” listed in the job posting.

This happens every day. People who are otherwise qualified get passed over because they lack a formal credential. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way, which is why I (a strong advocate for the benefit of college degrees), also argue for the social good of disrupting the college degree monopoly, a sort of gatekeeping system that impacts access and opportunity to sometimes highly qualified job candidates.

While respecting the college degree route as one valid and socially trusted pathway, it is time to further disrupt the college degree monopoly. After reviewing the literature, experimenting with and studying various past and current models, I am convinced that it is quite possible to accomplish this. One of the more promising ways is to not to focus on the degree at large, but start with one specific degree in a given field. Here is one (of many) ten-step methods to doing that.

1. Identify the prime field for the first disruption, and start with something that is more easily disrupt-able.

This needs to be an area that has little to no regulation. It does not have outside bodies that carefully control employment through licensure, accreditation, or other gate-keeping strategies. That leaves out teacher training programs and many health care tracks. In time, these can be tackled as well, but they requires more policy work and negotiation with agencies largely interested in protecting traditional credentials and slower evolution of those credentials. IT positions are a logical starting point, but the disruption is already underway in the form of code academies and the like.

2. Design an online/blended, self-paced, competency-based learning experience that consistently produces completers who are more competent, confident and effective than graduates of a “comparable degree” from the top ten ranked degree programs in the nation. This program will not lead toward a formal degree. It will not have credits. It will not be part of a regionally accredited organization. Or, if it is, this is part of the continuing education unit, separate from the review most external oversight and ineligible for federal financial aid. Ensure that the competencies reached through this learning experience are persistently current, aligned with the best research in the field, and benchmarked with the skills of the highest performers in that field.

3. Build this experience around micro-credentials that each display different areas of competence. Even if you did not go through the entire experience, you would have “leveled up” in at least a few areas.

4. Abandon the instructor/class model of instruction in place of a self-paced, online (or blended), competency-based format. There will be no professors or course instructors. Instead, provide every learner with access to a live, online, personal coach / mentor / achievement reviewer from 6:00 AM to 11:59 PM in that person’s local time zone. Every coach / mentor / achievement reviewer must have completed a rigorous assessment to demonstrate high levels of expertise in the areas of coaching / mentoring / reviewing. In addition, each of these people will be trained and assessed on their excellence in mentoring, coaching, reviewing, providing excellent formative feedback, and unswervingly upholding the highest possible standards when reviewing evidence of competence submitted by learners.

5. Price this experience at a maximum of 1/10th the cost of tuition for the average of the ten most affordable “comparable degrees.”

6. People who complete the program will be issued an official title, something like [Name of Organization] + [Name of Field] + Fellow. A date is attached to this title and it expires after five years.

7. Design a subscription system for graduates / fellows to engage in ongoing professional development that verifies maintaining competence, staying current with emerging developments, etc. A full review of the fellow’s portfolio occurs every 3-5 years and the date of the title issued to the learner is updated. Charge for this should be less than one-third what they paid for the initial program.

8. Establish a bold (perhaps even a bit aggressive) marketing campaign that puts completers of this program alongside the top in the field, showing without question the incredible effectiveness of every graduate and the extensive impact they have in their domain (whether it be benefit to the employer, the community, or elsewhere).

9. Protect the brand and industry perception by upholding the highest possible standards for learners. No one will be able to legitimately critique this program for lacking rigor or producing sub-par graduates.

10. Establish a network of completers and organizations seeking or needing such people. If you start with a program that is entry level, employers seeking first access to most recent graduates pay a fee to participate in the network and gain first access to these carefully vetted and highly qualified people. If you start with a non-entry program (like an alternative to a professional graduate degree), companies can avoid the subscription fee by paying a percentage of the fees for the employees pursuing the training. These graduates and organizations also serve in an advisory capacity to continue to review, refine and uphold the highest standard for the program. This part, while listed as step 9, can and probably should be pursued throughout the process, starting right away at step 1.

11. Choose another field and repeat.

This doesn’t apply for every college degree, but it can (and will) work for some, especially those that are more applied and focused on professional studies. I’ve done the math a few times and if you pick the right fields, the financials work.  They don’t work as well in areas where there are already very inexpensive technical or community college options, although building the value and brand of the program still has potential to combat such a limitation.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).