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How Credential Diversification Can Save the Soul of Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | How Credential Diversification Can Save the Soul of Higher Education
Higher education institutions need to move past the simple role of degree factories into places where students are nurtured and allowed to grow, which means opening up an array of new learning pathways and outcomes.

As we debate the future of higher education, the role of emerging credentials and much more, it is time for colleges and universities to reclaim and proclaim their role as institutions of learning and not just places of earning.

Advocates from top research universities, government agencies, research institutes, think tanks, education startups and more are arguing that we must make it a priority to graduate more students. The forthcoming skilled job shortage demands that we produce more college graduates. A college diploma is the ticket to a good job and a good life. Colleges must be measured more on the basis of their retention rates and how quickly they get people through school and into the workforce.

Why? Simply put, we push for these things because our world is in desperate need of critical thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, innovators, and people who are capable of learning, unlearning, and re-learning throughout life, adapting to the needs and contexts of a rapidly changing workplace and world. That is why we need more people with diplomas, they argue.

Did you notice the subtle but critical bait and switch in that last paragraph?

If you must, read it one more time before continuing. Did you see it? There is an important set of assumptions in the paragraph that, if not challenged or reviewed more carefully, may well undermine that which higher education institutions are best positioned to offer in this emerging and connected world.

The essence of a great college experience is not a college degree. It is a rich, engaging, empowering, enlightening and transformative learning experience. It is the experience of a network that may well extend through one’s lifetime. It is the experience of being immersed in a culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It is a place where you are stretched, challenged, inspired, and pushed to discover meaning and purpose in your life and the world around you.

I realize that many, including students, will read that last paragraph and invite me to wake up and join the real world of college today. It is a world of college debt, college dropouts, unemployed and underemployed graduates, college students (and sometimes parents) demanding that college lead to a stable and high-paying job. It is a world where many college students are balancing family and work commitments while trying to earn a degree and better themselves. Curiosity and a love of learning both sound like nice ideas, but in the end, plenty of people just want an affordable degree and diploma that lead to a good job and greater opportunity in life.

I also realize why so many leaders and observers focus on goals like improved retention rates, four-year graduation rates, decreased debt and fewer college loan defaults, degrees conferred, and gainful employment statistics. These are concrete and measurable. There is research to show correlations between these and other favorable outcomes. It is a means of making tweaks to the current system without disrupting it too much.

I have no issue with pursuing any of these goals. They have their role. Yet, we all know that what we measure quite often becomes what we value. If we are not intentional about persistently framing all such goals around a larger set of values in higher education, we will gain short-term wins while losing the soul of higher education. We will celebrate how good we’ve become at helping people earn while losing sight of our first love, learning.

This is not some idealistic dream for higher education. Nurturing a culture of learning is an incredibly practical goal, one that has immense implications for what we contribute to the world on a local, national and global level. The goal of nurturing people who are curious, love learning, act wisely, and think deeply is a good, noble, practical and important goal today.

What does this mean for higher education institutions? Interestingly enough, I contend that one of the ways we maintain or deepen our commitment to a higher education culture of learning in the modern world is to look at the nature and role of credentials in our schools. Credentials like a college diploma are so integrated with what and how people think about college that it is unrealistic to simply argue for creating a college experience that doesn’t, at least for some, culminate in a diploma. That just wouldn’t resonate with most people. Among other things, plenty of employers still see the diploma as evidence of qualification for certain jobs.

Credentials like the diploma have contributed to a culture of earning, and I contend that being innovative with credentials in higher education can help us draw more people back to a culture of learning as well. We don’t get rid of diplomas. Instead, I argue that we are wise to welcome a broader and diverse set of credentials in higher education with open arms. In doing so, we will diminish the monopoly of the diplomas as the solitary and culminating goal of going to college. We affirm that there are multiple pathways to learning, including those outside the walls of academia. We recognize and embrace an even more diverse collection of models for higher education.

Right now, if you start an undergraduate degree and drop out in two years, you are out of college with nothing to show for your time except for possibly loan debt. That is what some people argue at least. But did the person really not learn anything in those two years?

A broader range of credentials in higher education can serve as a way to recognize learning as it happens. Imagine a higher education experience that is not just a culminating diploma, but one where you receive digital badges, certificates or other credentials that recognize your learning on a more granular level and incremental basis. You might refine a set of important communication skills ranging from crafting and delivering an effective speech to collaborating with a team across digital networks, communicating effectively in writing to designing clean and compelling multimedia messages. This is part of a larger degree program perhaps, but as you learn these new skills and provide evidence of your learning, you are issued a credential to recognize it, a credential that could, over time, have value outside of school, even affording you access to part-time jobs, internships or even full-time jobs. What was previously a drop-out just turned into a credentialed person who learned a set of skills and stepped out to use those in the workplace. Perhaps the person continues with school part-time or comes back later. Perhaps not. Either way, the higher education learning community nurtured learning and helped that person achieve one or more personally meaningful goals.

These sorts of approaches to credentials are more closely connected to specifics of what a person is learning along the way. This has the promise of increased motivation. It helps the learners recognize progress and new learning. It creates a means of helping people see connections across courses and learning experiences—even across learning contexts. It creates an academic currency that could eventually be valued and more broadly accepted in the workplace. It does all of these while keeping a culture of learning intact, even amplifying it.

Some are concerned that such granular credentialing disregards the intangibles of learning as well as the often messy and interconnected nature of learning about complex concepts and mastering complex skills. You are chopping down the educational forest, categorizing all of the trees and foliage in nice and tidy piles, but you just destroyed the forest in the process. This is an important and valid concern. It is a risk and danger if people were to use microcredentials and digital badges in such a way. Yet, this is not the only way, and remember that I am not arguing for getting rid of the diploma. I’m simply arguing for embracing and incorporating a broader array of credentials within academia, but doing so with the goal of addressing practical concerns about the current system while also doubling down on our commitment to higher education institution that are first and foremost about deep and rich learning.

We are and should remain more than credentialing institutions, and embracing a more diverse set of credentials may well be our best way of achieving that.

Earlier in this article I wrote the following: “We need these things because our world is in desperate need of critical thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, innovators, and people who are capable of learning, unlearning, and re-learning throughout life, adapting to the needs and contexts of a rapidly changing workplace and world.” I believe so deeply in this statement that I am not willing to let the status quo of our current higher education system restrict people from becoming all of these things. The answer to nurturing such people is not to just send more people through an established higher education factory system and issue diplomas at the end. It is by opening ourselves up to more pathways for learning, a broader array of credentials, and proudly proclaiming that higher educations institutions are and should remain places of learning.

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