Signaling Your Learning

There is precedent for new types of credentials to supplement or even supplant traditional signals in the eyes of those looking to hire.
06/05/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Last time, I talked about some independent learners who have gone out of their way to put together their own equivalent of a college degree, much like I'm doing with my Degree of Freedom, no-cost, One Year BA program.

But one of the challenges people who do all this work face is how to communicate what they have accomplished to external audiences (such as employers).

This brings up the notion of signaling, the term used by a growing band of independent learners to describe how to reduce the sometimes complex story of self-propelled education and experience into a single set of signs.

The traditional signal most people have made use of for hundreds of years is the college diploma which has served as an effective means of communicating that one has finished a certain amount of coursework (two years worth for a holder of an Associate's Degree, four for a Bachelors, more for a graduate student). And while grades and individual courses appear in documentation like a college transcript, on a resume this information tends to be reduced to name of school, major and (occasionally) GPA.

Of these three pieces of information, the name of the college tends to carry the most weight, which indicates that the college you attended is the most important component of an individual's educational signal.

Now this might be an acknowledgement that some colleges do a better job at educating their students than others. But given that people are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend prestige schools when many of the courses taught within them are now available for free, there seems to be a different sort of value associated with the sign associated with a college's name.

The cynical among us might say that employers that would never discriminate in their own hiring practices based on factors such as class or income are happy to outsource that type of discrimination to institutions of higher ed (by giving priority to graduates from schools that tend to skew in certain directions in their selection processes). But a more generous interpretation of the power of the prestige college signal is that it simply carries more cultural and historic weight in our society than something that has not yet developed its own signaling power (such as self-propelled education).

The "Hackademics" who got together for a recent meetup organized by Dale Stephen's Uncollege project listed 20 different alternative signals one could create to communicate independent learning, which includes creating alternatives to a college transcript such as an online portfolio, certificates of completion for online courses, or a unique resume or Linked In profile that highlights independent learning.

But the bulk of suggestions involve leaping over traditional signals (such as the resume) in order to demonstrate your abilities and achievements without going through traditional channels. These include blogging, public speaking or publishing about your experiences. They also involve simply getting on with work in your field (by publishing a curriculum, creating a startup or getting a patent) and letting that success speak for itself.

Having worked with employers for decades in a previous career, I can attest to the fact that they are generally conservative with regard to comprehending and appreciating new types of credentials (much less allowing them to stand in for traditional ones like a college diploma).

And the automation of both the job application and resume screening processes means that if your resume lacks important key terms (such as "BA" or "Masters Degree"), then it might get screened out by a machine or first-round reviewer working for some outsource firm in the Philippians long before it gets to anyone who might understand and appreciate the independence required to create their own degree.

But there is precedent for new types of credentials to supplement or even supplant traditional signals in the eyes of those looking to hire. For example, people working in the IT field may do much better by earning a series of advanced IT certifications than by enrolling in a two- or four-year college program in technical subjects.

It would certainly be nice if experiences in independent education such as Uncollege (or Degree of Freedom for that matter) gained such awareness that people who went through them would be recognized as readily as someone with a Harvard degree listed at the bottom of his or her resume. But since entrepreneurship, marketing and sales skills tend to be picked up more in the independent learning world than in Ivy League colleges; it falls to students who have successfully completed such experiences to use those skills to signal the magnitude of what they have accomplished.