July/August 2012 The Assets Between Your Ears

The new movement to give college credit for the things you already know.

By Kevin Carey

In fact, the cutting edge of nontraditional credentialing increasingly can be found outside the realm of college altogether. LearningCounts, Knext, and Excelsior can help you get college credit without attending college. Other people are developing systems of credit that have nothing to do with “college” at all. The Open Badges movement, sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation (creators of the popular Firefox Web browser), is helping build whole online, information-rich credentialing systems for all manner of knowledge, expertise, and experience, much of it acquired in the workplace, local and virtual communities, and other places far from the traditional lecture hall. Start-up companies like Smarterer (not a typo) are building test- and badge-based systems that allow people to catalog, organize, and prove their knowledge in a variety of ways. The recently announced edX initiative, bankrolled by Harvard and MIT, will give students formal recognition of what they’ve learned in free online courses. They won’t be “Harvard credits” but they will be something creditlike, issued by someone closely affiliated with Harvard. After decades of monoculture, new forms of credentials are proliferating in wild and interesting ways.

All of which points toward a world where people have many options beyond their local college for getting the equivalent of college credit. That’s a welcome development and a huge net positive for dynamic labor markets in which people form associations with organizations and other people far outside of their local communities and need credible proof of knowledge and skills. The more the sum of human knowledge and skill is represented in credentials that can be used to access jobs and education, the better off we’ll be.

Excelsior’s philosophy is “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.” That was true in 1971, but it is far more true today.

[Return to The Future of Success in America]

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.


  • WellNo on July 18, 2012 3:31 PM:

    This is BS. Let me know when the New America Foundation hires someone who earned their college credits through life experience.

  • Matthew Kilburn on August 06, 2012 12:01 PM:

    "The U.S. economy desperately needs more Americans with college credentials: by 2018, more than 60 percent of U.S. job openings will require some form of post-secondary education"

    The real problem we have is the second half of your statement, not the first. The problem is not any shortage of educated persons, but the insanely high educational requirements now imposed on jobs that, just two decades ago, would have been filled by a high-school graduate with a handful of years' experience with the company. We don't need college-educated retail managers. And we need manufacturing outfits to stop expecting that a highly-experienced machinist is going to walk through the door.

    More college isn't the answer. We need better opportunities for non-college-educated Americans, a crackdown on jobs that require a four year degree without need, and for companies to step up and provide direct training to new hires specifically in the tasks they will be performing.

    College might be among the best times of a person's life...but lets be honest, it comes at a high price - and I don't just mean financial.

  • Timothy McCollum on December 10, 2012 10:18 PM:

    I spent 20 years in business, starting as a shipping clerk, next as chief shipping clerk, followed by warehouse manager and assistant office manager, until I left and went to a competitor as office manager, whereupon I departed and joined a larger competitor as a salesman. With that company (which was the 2nd largest privately held company in America, just after Gallo winery in revenues) I ended up as director of sales and marketing administration, while I was attending night law school. I graduated, passed the California bar examination, and was made director of legal affairs, ultimately becoming chief counsel. I left, went into private practice, and the only business and property matters, for 35 years.

    I wanted to teach. I was accepted at such universities as Harvard. When I carefully looked at the courses, I realize my prior education was 50 years out of date. I enrolled at Eastern Oregon University, to retake my upper division matriculation.

    I asked for some credit, for my approximate 140 credit hours of law school. EOU gave me 12, lower division, vo-tech units credit. I had absolute no need for any further lower division credits, or, vo-tech credits.

    Last December I graduated from EOU, summa cum laude, and to get that I worked my fanny off. I read books for each class far outside of the court required reading, I embarked upon individual investigation way beyond the necessity of the class.

    My online courses work opportunity for me. I am now happily enrolled at Stonybrook University, on a liberal studies graduate program.

    Oh, yes, I was on the Dean's list, I was named "the outstanding liberal studies student of the year" and elevated to the Pinnacle National Honor Society (the Phi Beta Kappa of non-traditional students).

    Life is, what you choose to make it.