4 Reasons Why Credits & Credentials are Killing College

“Killing” is too strong of a word, but credits and credentials are not, nor have they have ever been, the greatest value of a higher education. That  comes from the community, mentors, and time to invest in serious and prolonged study. You don’t need credits or credentials for that to happen.

I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of credentials for several years, and while I remain an advocate for emerging credentials like digital badges, the exploration of this topic is also leading me to have a growing concern that a focus on credentials and credits is blinding us to the more important topic of learning. The more college becomes about earning credentials and credits, the more it risks losing a focus upon learning, study and hard work, rich experiences, deep intellectual engagement, the power of a learning community, exploration, and experimentation. Even as more people write about, think about, and even choose alternatives to traditional higher education, there seems to be a a heightened emphasis upon the college degree and diploma.

Here are four reasons why credentials and credits are holding colleges back.

1. People are mistaking credits and credentials with actual learning. 

Imagine that you need to take someone to the emergency room. Just as you are nearing the ER, you see a large sign pointing to the ER. So, you pull over, lean the person against the sign, and breath a sign of relief. Yes, that is an absurd narrative because we all know there is a huge difference between the essence of something and a sign or a symbol for that thing. The same thing is true when it comes to learning, credits and credentials.

Some schools think that the value of their offering resides mainly with their credential. Consider the news about the University of Illinois offering a MOOC pathway toward an MBA. You can actually go through the course experiences for little to no money, but if you want to get the degree, you need to pay about $20,000. In other words, the University of Illinois suggests that the primary offering worthy of payment is not the education itself, but the credential that you get if you hand over the $20,000. And how much extra did it cost them to issue that diploma? Was that really a $20,000 transaction?

Perhaps they don’t realize how wonderfully they’ve set themselves up for a brilliant disruption. They are helping accelerate not only the democratization of higher education, but also the demonetization (both of which I support in various forms). Consider the implications if there really is no difference between two people’s learning and accomplishments other than the fact that one paid $20,000 and got a diploma, and the other didn’t pay the money or get the piece of paper. They both learned the same amount. The public is smart enough to follow this to its logical conclusion.

At the same time, we have some advocates of competency-based education championing this new model because it can decrease the cost of a degree and speed the time to completion. Those are admirable in many instances. Yet, the real power behind CBE is an education that leads to true (and real-world tested) competency. It doesn’t have to do with the credential.

2. Organizations outside of formal education, free from credentials and regionally accredited credentials, have more freedom to innovative.

In other words, the regulations tied to being a credit and credential issuing organization prevent many higher education organizations from keeping up with some of the most democratizing (and sometimes demonetizing) innovations in higher education. Yes, I am referring to organizations like Udemy, Lynda.com, and General Assembly. I’m also thinking of brilliant but simple innovations like Experience Institute, an organization focused upon providing people with a series of rich apprenticeship experiences as “core courses” in program that is completely separate from college credits or credentials. Where is the value? It is in the experiences and expertise nurtured amid these apprenticeships. They also introduce people to the power of a much more self-directed learning experience.

As much as some regional accreditors shout that they are pro-innovation, they continue to come up with new regulations that put regionally accredited institutions at a huge disadvantage in this increasingly connected world. As an example, look at the confusion and struggle between the US Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies as they try to create policies and regulations around developments like competency-based education, blended learning, adaptive learning, self-directed learning and experiential education. They consistently make up policies based upon constructs that are sometimes decades old. Without realizing it, their regulations sometimes restrict best and promising practices more than amplify or ensure them.

3. People are beginning to have a Wizard of Oz discovery that there is nothing inherently magical about regionally accredited higher education institutions. They are not full of wizards with secret skills and knowledge only accessible through those institutions.

Give me 10-20 really gifted teacher/facilitators/experts in various areas, put them in a space with a group of willing learners, add the necessary fund and resources, and you can have just as impactful of a learning experience as what happens for many in the pursuit of their college degrees. In other words, there is nothing magical about the formal credentials of the instructors, whether it is a regionally accredited institution, or whether they issue credentials and credentials. You can design alternate learning communities with comparable or better results and for less money. Much of the startup world knows this and I have no doubt that future startups will amplify this point in powerful and disruptive ways.

4. We are on the verge of a self-directed learning revolution.

Browse my blog and you’ll find plenty of predictions. At one point or another, I’ve argued that digital badges, open education, and competency-based education are each going to change education as we know it. I stand by those. However, the greatest disruption to institutions that believe credits and credentials are their prime offering is an increasingly informed population. We’ve experienced the democratization of much knowledge and information over the past decades. Now some of the greatest innovations are coming around finding ways to help people help themselves by tapping into all the knowledge and people in a connected world. This is the brilliance behind Sugata Mitra’s work on self-organized learning environments and the school in the cloud, not to mention the world of social media. I contend that this is also why we are seeing such an increase in the number of K-12 schools experimenting with more self-directed learning contexts. Self-directed learning is the differentiating literacy of the late 21st cent 22nd centuries. Put increasingly self-directed learners together and you get a powerful grassroots community of learners. The learning happening in such communities is already equaling or surpassing what happens in some credit-based programs leading to regionally accredited credentials. Once these eduhackers figure out how to truly democratize the credential or establish and equally valued alternative, they will be a true force in the modern educational landscape.

Credits and credentials are widely recognized and trusted, and there is something to be said for trust. Yet, if we allow ourselves to notice the different strands of innovation today, and if we follow them into the future; it is not difficult to see that traditional notions of these two conventions are a potential deterrent to a wise, competent, and confident populace.  Any organization that makes credits and credentials their primary sources of nourishment will eventually find itself struggling for survival.

What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate?

What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate? There are obviously many answers to this question. There is not a single answer. However, I’m increasingly convinced that this a question worth asking, helping us to better understand the perceptions, value, and limitations of credentials as a social currency. Perhaps it will help us navigate the growing conversations around alternative credentials, micro-credentialing and debates about the value of a college degree.

I have a stack of credentials, but what do they say about my current competence? I have a 6th grade diploma, 8th grade diploma, high school diploma, undergraduate diploma, and three graduate diplomas. Then I have a fair share of certificates, not to mention transcripts with coursework in well over a dozen disciplines from many Universities. I don’t write this to boast. In fact, I am doing the opposite, illustrating how little they say about my current competence.

So, what do each of these credentials say about me today? Can I still recall the facts required to pass the classes that led to my 6th grade diploma? Check out “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” and you have your answer.Do I still have the knowledge to easily reference Spinoza or Descartes based on my philosophy of perception class ten years ago? What about the computer information system courses that I took in the 1990s? I was once skilled at repairing 1990s computers or building them from scratch, but you do not want me tinkering with your 2014 laptop. And I was also good with network management of anything using Novell NetWare 4.0 or earlier, which doesn’t do me much good navigating any modern network. Or how about my certificate in online teaching and learning from eight years ago? Has anything changed with online learning in the last eight years?

Without persistent practice, time has a way of eroding knowledge and skill in many of these areas. Yet, that original credential is what goes on the résumé. I could have permanent memory loss and I still get to own those credentials, post them on my wall (or store them in my closet…my location of choice at the moment), and use them as evidence of my competence for current and future work.

But some credentials expire. You have to keep doing something to show that you still “have it.” That is true, and the rigor of re-certification varies significantly from one credential to another. Some do require a person to prove that they are still current. Most have simple professional development requirements: design a professional development plan and show your progress, or complete a certain number of CEUs or graduate credits in an accepted area. To keep up my teaching license, all I need to do is complete a background check, write a check to the state, and take 6 graduate credits in education or history. Or, more recent graduates have to design a professional development plan with goals and a demonstration what they learned. Either option can be a nice learning experience, but neither verifies current knowledge and skill. They simply show that you are doing something in an area relevant to your certification. This same thing is true in many professions, including a number of health fields.

Time does make a difference in how credentials are viewed. If you had a counseling degree from 1965 but had not practiced as a counselor since that time, it would have less perceived value…at least for those who cared to investigate. But that is part of my concern. How many people look at credentials with that measure of scrutiny? Employers do, but credentials tend to serve as signals that a person belongs to a class of educated, qualified, competent, or maybe even just intelligent. Depending upon the nature of the credential, they offer prestige and an entry ticket into certain groups.

Some credentials, like a medical license or even a driver’s license can’t be maintained in the presence of some factor that results in a person being unable to perform the tasks required of that license. For example, if I can’t pass the vision test, I get a limited license (requiring corrective eyewear) or I can’t get a license. Certain conditions might even exclude me from being eligible to drive. The same it true for other certifications and licenses, but it is not true for other credentials like diplomas. One reason is simply that driving when not able is far more dangerous than keeping a diploma posted on one’s wall. So, we see that we have different types of credentials, each with different standards.

If all credentials were really about verifying competence (a shorthand way of telling society that, “This person is qualified or educated.”), why isn’t it standard for us to have to conduct re-assessments every 3-5 years to maintain a credential? Considering this question and the potential answers is an important part of understanding and addressing the affordances and limitations of credentials in contemporary society. It helps us recognize how they are being used, abused, misrepresented, and leveraged for good.

  • How much of the answer to such questions is financial?
  • How much of it reveals that credentials are often fundamentally about something different from current capabilities and competence?
  • How might the answer help us make progress toward a culture that values competence above credentials, and that avoids unhelpful practices verging on credentialism?
  • How might the concept of micro-credentials help, hinder, or perpetuate the current limitations of credentials in society?