Are there viable alternatives to the university diploma?

Are there viable alternatives to the credentialing/degree system widely employed in American higher education? Is there innovation in the wings that both enables a more cost-effective education credentialing process and also puts at risk scores of traditional educational institutions? That is the subject of this post.

In earlier posts I have been exploring the financial implications of “free college for all” proposals, noting that the most tangible “product” of a college or university institution is not education per se, but rather the credential it grants. While the former hopefully has some correlation to the latter, it is the credential itself that best conforms to the “rules of the market,” with seekers maximizing their “cost-benefit” choices along a continuum of school types and reputations. Students as well often seek to exert the optimal amount of effort required to get the diploma, which is rational consumer behavior, but not necessarily the best maximization of “the college experience.”

At the outset of the introduction of the commercial internet, I heard a consultant offer the advice (likely not original to him) that emerging technologies demanded that companies “must determine the innovation that will make your own product obsolete and then develop it before someone else does.” This advice proved prescient for quite a few businesses, such as retailing and academic book publishing.

While there have been some new “players” in the “higher education space,” as well as new ways in which classes are taught, there is still a lot of “doing it the old way,” for good or for bad. Is this because “the old way” remains the best way, or is it because the new innovations have not yet captured the market for “the product”?

Who determines the credential?

In an earlier post I argued that, for many academic disciplines, the “education” part has been free to obtain by motivated people ever since there have been public libraries. This is especially true today with the internet and a robust, cheap used textbook market. However, like the Scarecrow in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it is the diploma, the credentialed evidence of some level of education, that has traditionally been “the ticket to success” sought by students and required by employers.

Most people, I suspect, have no idea how higher education credentialing is managed in the United States. For “mainstream” colleges and universities, this process is handled by regional bodies who evaluate schools and individual degree programs on a regular basis. For instance, in nineteen Midwest and South-Central states, most of this power is voluntarily granted by the schools and states to a non-profit organization called the Higher Learning Commission. In the western states, this process is handled by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education services New York and surrounding states.

All of these bodies attempt to match “the credential” to “the education” in some comparative and standardized way. In addition, other professional associations certify specific academic and professional programs, say, schools of nursing or business. While many small private universities meet the same rigorous requirements for accreditation as “the big boys,” others do not, and so there are other associations attempting to set standards for these schools, usually at a lower level of requirements. For instance, the Association of Independent Christian Colleges & Seminaries has about 400 member institutions. Likewise, some for-profit “career colleges” have achieved “regional” accreditation, but many have not, and they have their own association for certifying schools at the level they can more realistically obtain.

This credentialing process very important, determining availability of funding from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources, and determining the transfer of college credit between member institutions. Many students find out too late that the courses they paid for at one school don’t transfer to another because of their school’s level of accreditation.

These different credentials are not seen as equivalent in the market. While college credits can usually be transferred between schools with the “mainstream” regional accreditation, especially at the freshman-sophomore level, these same schools will often reject credits earned at colleges that are not members of their accrediting body or its equivalent. In effect, the “regional” college credits are worth more in the market than the others, and some of the specific program certifications are “worth more” than others. The market is assuming some correlation here between the level of accreditation and the quality of the education delivered to the student, which may or may may not be the case.

When the credential is no longer required

College degrees, long sorted and weeded out by evaluators of job resumes on an arbitrary basis, become an issue in a tight labor market such as the one we have today, and some major employers have loosened the degree requirements for many entry-level jobs. According to the online job site Glassdoor, these employers include Google, Whole Foods, Apple and other big names. Often other educational or work experience requirements are substituted, such as a computer coding “boot camp” or some vocational-technical training.

Many of these companies are willing to invest in their best workers once they are in the door as part of the employee weeding and retention process. This investment might include further specialized training or even paying for full university degree programs. The less-known factor here is how this change in employment practices might impact future college and university enrollments were it to become more widespread.

Most college faculty and administrators will admit, perhaps reluctantly, that many enrollees in their four-year college degree programs would be better off, both financially and in terms of career prospects, by pursuing a good vocational training program instead. Two years of unfocused or unsuccessful college education without a degree earned is often less useful in the marketplace than a two-year vocational-technical certification.

In Europe, the education systems typically “track” students quite early in their secondary schooling years toward either vocational or university education, such as in the British “GCSE” (formerly “O Level”) versus “A Level” certifications, respectively. In the United States such tracking, where attempted, often runs into criticism about socioeconomic and racial profiling, and denying opportunities for life-changing “upward mobility.”

The dilemma in American universities is whether placing under-prepared students in university settings really achieves the ideal of upward mobility. During my short time as a university administrator, I did an analysis of the outcomes for students who performed poorly in several common freshman/sophomore college classes at my institution. How many of the poorly-performing students would eventually graduate? In several courses I found that 95% or more of the students performing poorly in specific courses as freshmen would eventually drop out without a degree, but it might take two or three more expensive and poorly-performing years before that student would drop out, even with extensive intervention by student support services.

In short, the dilemma is how we capture and enable the under-prepared students who can benefit from a traditional university and at the same time counsel better career-enabling alternatives for those who cannot.

In an earlier post, I looked at how university sports programs complicate this dilemma. A cynical colleague who regularly faced this politically-charged debate suggested that perhaps we need some high-quality vocational schools with competitive sports programs to engineer a better fit between schools and students. It is a tricky subject to address honestly.

Online universities

Online education has clearly vied for a place in the higher education credentialing space, with mixed results. Online programs initially found strong resistance from the above-named regional accrediting bodies, although several schools have “passed the bar” of “mainstream” accreditation. However, the for-profit University of Phoenix, which came into being with a high stress on online education, is running at less than one-third of its peak enrollment by several estimates, and financial scandals have continued to plague this market.

Having taught online classes myself, my take is that the major barrier to successful online learning from the student perspective is very similar to the reason why most people have not availed themselves of the “free education” I wrote of earlier, using traditional libraries, the used-book market, and free online sites. Credentialing issues aside, most young people seem not to have the motivation and discipline for self-structured learning, even if there is an online “guide on the side” instructor available. The traditional classroom and academic schedules seems to provide a necessary study discipline that more flexible programs do not. Structured classes with required attendance and a “sage on the stage” professor still dominate the American university “credentialing business.”


There has long been a market for “continuing education” and “seminar” programs that do provide a credential of sorts, which have been called micro-credentials, but these typically have been adjuncts to traditional degree programs for people already in the workplace, and there has been little standardization in the process.

Business schools all the way up to Harvard have often found these programs to be profitable ways to use faculty and facilities above and beyond their traditional role. Professions such as education and accounting have formalized continuing education requirements that keep this part of the education market functioning. There have been many other attempts by universities and other organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, to tap into this market, but I think it safe to say that no one paradigm has effectively challenged traditional degree programs.

Wherefore the liberal arts?

Perhaps the area at biggest threat from alternative credentialing is the classic liberal arts education. Most four-year colleges and universities still place a heavy emphasis in the first two years on this area of education, requiring students to choose from some selection of courses broadly covering literature, science, mathematics, the arts, the social sciences and history.

Ironically, this is at the same time the very part of education hardest to credential beyond standard college credit, and yet it is the primary grounding for the “well-rounded” interpersonal communication and critical thinking skills that many employers find lacking in their new hires. The liberal arts are also widely credited with better prepare people for changing career needs, because the focus is as much on “learning how to learn” as it is on specific job skills that may well go obsolete in a few short years.

So far changes to the educational landscape are slow and incremental. Marginal private colleges and career colleges continue to fail at a steady rate. State university systems, on the other hand, face heavy financial constraints in some states, preventing innovation and growth. Tremendous opportunities await anyone who can successfully crack this paradigm. But in the meantime, educational inertia seems to reign supreme.

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