The credential – the degree or certificate – has long been the quintessential value proposition of higher education. Americans have embraced degrees with a fervor generally reserved for hot dogs and apple pie. Everyone should have them! And their perceived value elsewhere in the world – in Asia in particular – is if anything even higher.
From the employer’s standpoint, credentials provide signals that allow one to make quick assumptions about a candidate’s potential and ability to flourish on the job. To a prospective student (or parent), a credential’s value lies in the assumption that it will be accepted in employment markets and at other times of social evaluation. The signals provided by credentials have long been known to be imperfect, but they were often the only game in town. Thus, a degree from a top university has been seen to contain crucial information about a person’s skills, networks and work habits.
Higher education, however, is in the midst of dramatic, disruptive change. It is, to use the language of innovation theorists and practitioners, being “unbundled.” And with that unbundling, the traditional credential is rapidly losing relevance. The value of paper degrees has to do with the fact that we’ve accepted them as proxies for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid than the higher education establishment would like to believe.
The value of paper degrees will inevitably decline when employers and other evaluators avail themselves of more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate their skills. Evaluative information like work samples, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges are creating new signals of aptitude and different types of credentials. Education-technology companies eduClipper and Pathbrite, and general interest platforms such as Tumblr and WordPress, can be used to show online portfolios. Knack, Pymetrics and Kalibrr use games and other assessments that measure work-relevant aptitudes and attitudes. HireArt is a supercharged job board that allows applicants to compete in challenges that are relevant to job openings. These new platforms are measuring signals of aptitude with a level of granularity that’s never before been possible.
There are sites – notably Degreed and Accredible – that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials altogether. Particularly in the Internet’s native careers – design and software engineering – communities have emerged that allow members to signal their skills and experience in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined five years ago. Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites. Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers can evaluate their work.
In these fields in the innovation economy, traditional credentials are not only unnecessary but sometimes even liabilities. A software CEO I spoke with recently said he avoids job candidates with advanced software engineering degrees because they represent an over-investment in education that brings with it both higher salary demands and hubris. It’s a red flag that warns that a candidate is likely to be an expensive, hard-to-work-with diva who will show no loyalty to the company.
A credential, like any common currency, is valued only because we’ve collectively agreed to assign it value. The worth of a college degree has been in question since the Great Recession, but there have yet to emerge clear alternatives for the public to rally around. There are plenty of contenders, though, and it won’t be long before one of them crystallizes the idea that the traditional degree is increasingly irrelevant in a world where employers have immediate access to evaluative information.
(Michael Staton is a partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital firm focused on education. He is also the founder and former CEO of Uversity, and a former public schoolteacher.)