September/ October 2013 A Matter of Degrees

In the future world of “credentialing,” do you still need college?

By Anne Kim

Not just for Boy Scouts: You too can earn these badges from Mozilla by learning and demonstrating Web design skills.

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to openbadges.org, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Web browser maker Mozilla launched openbadges.org in 2011 to promote what they call “digital badges” to anyone who can demonstrate that they’ve mastered a specific skill. Much like Boy Scout merit badges, participants can earn their way up the badge ladder. Aspiring Web designers, for example, can earn a badge as a “Code Whisperer,” an “Editor,” a “Div Master,” or a “Super Styler,” depending on their ability to demonstrate their coding skills and to build their own Web projects. At the top are the “HTML Basic” and “I am a Webmaker” badges, stepping stones for becoming the Eagle Scout of the Mozilla digital badge world: a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

Each badge earned gets you an icon to display on your digital resume or as part of your online profile, which you can show to prospective employers. More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills. At the annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative this summer, former President Bill Clinton endorsed the idea of badging and urged more employers to participate.

While badges are gaining steam, they are actually just one example of many new so-called skills-based credentials that are cropping up in different industries—from Web design to retail to manufacturing—thanks to employers’ and students’ growing disenchantment with traditional college degrees.

From an employer’s perspective, traditional degrees aren’t always all that useful, even though most jobs today require the high level of skills that post-secondary education is supposed to confer. While degrees serve as a kind of baseline measure of a job candidate’s reliability—this person showed up for class (most of the time) for X number of years—they don’t reveal much about an applicant’s actual skills. Because they really only measure the amount of time a student has spent in a classroom, rather than the skills a student has acquired, degrees confer little beyond the selectivity of the college that granted them.

From the students’ perspective, earning a college degree is increasingly prohibitively expensive. It’s also often impossibly time-consuming, especially for the growing number of prospective students who are also trying to juggle family and a full-time job. But as long as traditional degrees are the only admission ticket to better-paying jobs, people with aspirations, who often have valuable on-the-job skill sets but no degree to prove it, can find themselves unable to move up in life.

With all this in mind, a new movement has arisen that is championing alternative avenues to credentials and traditional college degrees. In some cases, companies are bypassing traditional higher education entirely by creating new credentialing systems from scratch, like those Mozilla badges. In other cases, companies have begun partnering with traditional institutions of higher education, such as community colleges or local four-year universities, that are willing to offer their workers college credit for the skills they learn on the job.

Ultimately, these innovations could be a significant boon to students. Particularly for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the benefit could be better access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education—a must in the changing job market. But these innovations could also threaten the business model of traditional colleges and universities that are unwilling to adapt.

As the senior vice president for the nonprofit Manufacturing Institute, Brent Weil hears complaints from his member companies all the time. When he asks them how they find new workers to hire, the top of the list is word of mouth and the second is for-profit staffing agencies. At the bottom of the list, “somewhere near the margin of error,” he says, is the current system of higher education, which, he argues, fails to produce enough qualified graduates.

In its 2011 “skills gap” report, the institute claimed that as many as 600,000 jobs were going unfilled due to a shortage of workers with the right skills, especially the higher-order skills that are increasingly a must in technology-driven, advanced manufacturing. In addition to specific skills such as precision machining, manufacturers say they need people who can work in teams, solve problems, and communicate with their colleagues, as well as simply show up on time. In theory, a certificate or degree from, say, a community college, should be a guarantee that a person has gained these work habits and thinking skills. In practice, too often, it is not.

Frustrated by this state of affairs, the manufacturing industry began developing its own system of industry-approved credentials for prospective employees. In 2011, the Manufacturing Institute unveiled a pyramid of “stackable credentials” that workers can collect in the same way that budding Webmasters can earn a progression of badges from Mozilla.

At the bottom of the pyramid is a basic credential—the National Career Readiness Certificate developed by the ACT testing service—attesting to the core workplace skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork, that every worker is expected to have. At the top are a variety of “skills certifications,” also organized by increasing levels of knowledge, that workers can earn in specific jobs such as machining, welding, construction, and automation.

“Machining Level I,” for example, qualifies a worker for entry-level jobs, while “Machining Level III” would put someone in the running for the highest-paid and most advanced work—with a potential salary of up to $80,000. In the past two years, more than 84,000 manufacturing workers have earned certifications under the new system, and the industry’s goal is to issue at least 500,000 by 2016.

As with badges, the new system standardizes the skill sets required by manufacturing into an organized system that the entire industry has agreed to recognize. In the past, workers and employers had to pick through as many as 450 different certificates of varying quality, offered by a slew of industry trade groups, many of whose revenues were based on the fees collected from offering credentials, as well as by community and for-profit colleges of dubious merit (think Sally Struthers promising on late-night TV that you, too, could become a mechanic by mail).

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0.


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