In the News

From The Atlantic

When a college degree isn’t enough, Small-bite credentials are being used as supplements.

Last June, Martin Chibwe, a computer-science major, graduated from Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, a liberal-arts campus with a hipster ethos that shuns letter grades and urges exploration (“We don’t tell you what to take,” its website promises). His computer-science courses covered topics like programming, machine learning, and artificial intelligence; Chibwe even did a project on recommendation algorithms for an online library.

But days after getting his diploma, and despite the big investment ($39,000 in student loans), he sought another credential to “stack” on top to make him more marketable. He enrolled in Udacity’s iOS Developer Nanodegree program, a five-course cluster from the online platform known for its techie-skills focus. Cost: $900.

“I knew I needed help to land a job,” said Chibwe. In January, he was hired to develop apps at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology near Tacoma, Washington.

Chibwe’s experience underscores a new truth: The bachelor’s degree may be the classic pass to join the world of work, but increasingly it’s no longer enough. And that prompts a provocative thought: Could credentials replace traditional education? Do we need college?

The country has entered a “prove it” economy in which codified skills are currency. It’s driving a revolution in how education is constructed, delivered, used—and credentialed. Even as degrees, from associates to doctorates, proliferate, they are joined—maybe trumped—by thousands of resume-worthy credentials from shorter, non-degree in-the-newsprograms.

The credentials come from many sources: traditional universities; online platforms like edX; trade organizations like the American Hotel and Lodging Institute; and companies like Jiffy Lube and IBM. Content and costs vary. Some are earned in quick sessions; others take months. Programs may charge tens of thousands of dollars—or nothing.

Within the credential universe, you find badges and certificates (earned for completing a course) as well as licenses and certifications (which require an exam and must be renewed). Like a real-life game of Pokémon, people are collecting and stacking them—mixing, sequencing, or combining—to show off their powers.

In March, MissionU, a new 12-month college alternative combining in-person and online learning, opened applications for its first major, Data Analytics + Business Intelligence. Students apply as they would for college, but once they begin, instead of parsing Chaucer or Pope, they will study subjects such as business writing and project management. There’s no tuition; its graduates will pay 15 percent of their income for three years once they hit $50,000.

Adam Braun started the company as “an alternative for those looking for more career focus.” While students need higher education, he said, “what they don’t need is a system that tells every single person that they need a bachelor’s degree to thrive.”

Getting a handle on the number of credentials being awarded is difficult; government data-keepers count an educational certificate only when it represents a student’s highest level of achievement. That doesn’t capture what many people are doing: earning credentials even if they have a degree. And there is no count of badges. The best estimate is from a 2012 federal survey that found one-quarter of adults had licenses, certifications, and/or educational certificates. But that misses the rapid rise of short-term online-education offerings over the past five years.

Certainly, the call for timely, narrow credentials is shaping a new way of thinking about education—as a combination of parts rather than a sum. Just as the record album gave way to the self-curated playlist, it is increasingly possible to buy and learn only what you need and want.

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