06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Credentialism and Higher Ed

Probably the most common question I get about the future of higher ed is "But what about credentials?". In the words of Ezra Klein:

"So in Kamenetz's world -- a world that I agree would be far better for pure learning -- what steps into the role played by accreditation, both the one you get from the college you went to and the one you get from the relative selectiveness of that college against other colleges?"

And Matthew Yglesias wrote, about the same piece of mine:

"She details a number of innovative and promising steps along these lines. But this still does leave us with the question of whether online learning can replace the credential offered by a degree from a reputable university." He goes on to use the example of, yes, Harvard.

In general, bringing Harvard into a discussion of "higher education policy" is about as relevant as bringing truffles into a discussion of "food policy." The issue at hand is not how to refine the very tippity-top of the quality spectrum but how to serve the majority of people with good quality at a fair price. The framing of this question by both of these very smart commentators assumes that the system of accreditation we have works well today, for the majority of people.

Actually, accreditation today works well for people like Ezra, Matthew and myself who managed to get into and graduate from selective schools. This is by definition a small minority of people since "selective" means "lets in a small minority."

It works less well for people who graduate from less selective schools.

It works extremely poorly for people who do not get degrees--often because they are poor and have to work more hours while they're in, or instead of going, to school. They are cut out of a good percentage of decent-paying jobs. In fact, even in progressive circles there is only intermittent public conversation about improving the quality of non-college jobs because the human capital policy we have assumes--"Oh, we'll send more people to college so they can qualify for good jobs."

This third group is a majority of Americans--just over 60 percent have less than an associate's degree.

So, "credentialism" today aka the BA imperative, does not work well for most people.

I am going to argue that as long as the value of your degree is correlated with the selectivity of the college you went to, we're probably forcing out a lot of very talented people (Harvard could fill its undergraduate class with valedictorians ten times over--sucks for all those kids who don't make it!).

As long as your success in college is correlated with how much money your family makes, even if you are smart and well prepared, for the simple reasons that you have to work more hours in school and that the cheaper colleges you attend have fewer resources to help you, our accreditation system works against social mobility.

I'm going to also argue that what we really want, to promote maximum prosperity for the maximum number of people, is for everyone to be able to find jobs suited to their talents. "Bad fit" leads to comparatively lower earnings and less job satisfaction. This is just as true by the way for the double-Ivy-League degree lawyer who'd rather be building boats in Key West, as it is for the waitress with a keen analytical mind who should be working for Accenture.

Still, accreditation remains a huge unresolved question.

One answer I look at in DIY U involves building reputation-based social networks like Behance, for designers, where people can create portfolios and be judged on their actual work and accomplishments, not by the names on their diplomas. The Internet generally makes it easier to hire based on demonstrated skills, not how you look on paper.

(A commenter on my blog offered another example from the programming world: "When Ruby/Rails programmers want to get an idea of how good one of their peers is, they almost never ask, "what degrees do you have?" or "what school did you go to?" Instead, they ask, "what's your GitHub user name?" GitHub is a place where people share their code... if someone has a bunch of popular projects, you can assume that they know those areas pretty well.")

Another answer involves judging colleges differently, for instance by their graduates' improvement in learning or by starting salaries of graduates, rather than by how selective they are. Judge by outputs, not inputs.

Yet another answer is simply to create new forms of accreditation and exams. Excelsior College for example is a pioneer in assessing and awarding credit for independent learning.