This month the Lumina Foundation launched a national dialogue  focused on transforming the credentialing system for higher education in the US. Here is my contribution to that discussion. I encourage readers to comment on this post or to add their voices to the discussion started by the Lumina Foundation.

Graduation caps


Recently a reader of my blog sent me a link to a forum where a fascinating debate was taking place, spurred by the news that Coursera is phasing out its free Statements of Accomplishment for people who complete MOOCs. This debate crystallized around the question of whether credentials - not just MOOC credentials, but credentials in general - were worth anything.

“Portfolio trumps certificate,” says one contributor.

“Not in my country,” says another.  “If you don’t have a certificate, good luck going through HR.”

“This is what’s wrong with employment,” a third chimes in. “I say this as a teacher who offers degree classes. You can earn a certificate without learning a damn thing.”

The discussion goes on at some length, but you get the idea.

So which is it? We all know that credentials (degrees in particular) are an absolute requirement to get certain jobs. But do they have to be? Can a portfolio ever win out over a credential? And what happens when Coursera completely gets rid of Statements of Accomplishment? Will MOOC students be obliged to pay for verified certificates in order for the courses to “count”?


How credentials work

Here at No-Pay MBA, we start from the premise that education has real value even when it it isn’t credentialed. In this article, I’ll explore credentials - what they are, what role they play in the marketplace, and whether it might possible to capture value from non-credentialed education.

To get started, let’s talk about the different types of credentials and look at how they function in the job market. I find it helpful to start by dividing credentials into two broad categories - degrees and all other credentials. I’ve heard David Blake, the CEO of Degreed refer to these categories as horizontal and vertical credentials. According to Blake, degrees are horizontal credentials; they level you up to a whole new category of job opportunities, lifting the floor underneath you.

Vertical credentials can be added on top of horizontal credentials, but they can’t be aggregated up to a horizontal credential at the next level. Most professional training courses fall into this category. Many fields recognize some type of non-degree credentials, but unlike degrees, these credentials are not generally understood outside of their field. Often if a non-degree credential is required, it must come with a degree, in the way that a teacher needs both a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate.  


Are MOOCs just Sesame Street for adults?

SesameStreet-622x453So what are MOOC course certificates, and what could or should they be? Should students be able to use them to build up to a horizontal credential like a degree? Or are MOOC certificates better understood as vertical credentials that are only valuable when stacked on top of a degree? Or maybe they’re neither - maybe MOOCs are best understood as edu-tainment, Sesame Street for knowledge-hungry adults. In which case, who cares if they come with any kind of credential at all?!

We can think about the possibilities for MOOC credentialing along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum, MOOCs are “just for fun,” personal edification that shouldn’t be taken seriously as professional training. There are plenty of people who will tell you that MOOCs are education for education’s sake, and that it’s impossible to capture any real value from them (in the form of a salary increase, for example).

At the next step along the continuum, MOOCs might be converted into more standard credentials. EdX’s partnership with Arizona State University is an example of this kind of arrangement; students can now take their entire first year of coursework at ASU via MOOC. After finishing the coursework, the MOOC certificates can be converted for credit at ASU. The same people who are saying that MOOCs are not capable of producing meaningful educational outcomes pooh-pooh such schemes as “credit laundering.”

At No-Pay MBA, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum. We believe it is possible to leverage a MOOC education for tangible career advancement, with or without a credential. And we think it’s only a matter of time before employers realize how valuable MOOCs can be. (In fact, they are already starting to.)


“If you don’t have a certificate, good luck going through HR.”

One big change that could bring efficiency into the hiring process would be the removal of the gatekeeping function of credentials that aren’t directly relevant to the jobs they keep people out of. The credential isn’t typically the only, or even the most important factor that determines whether you get a job, but as we all know, the lack of a credential can prevent you from getting one. But does it have to be this way?

I’m not opposed to degrees by any means; I have two of them, and I value them both, as well as the education they represent. But I do find it rather silly that HR requires a master’s degree - any master’s degree - for my current job, even though my master’s program in geography has very little relevance to my day-to-day work.

Here’s another thing I find a bit nonsensical about the way horizontal credentials work. Most people get their degrees fairly early in their careers and have finished their formal higher education before they are even 10 years into a work life that may span four decades.

The credential that you earn at age 22 or 25 doesn’t signal that you are at the top of your field, but rather that you are prepared to begin working in that field. Very often, the credential whose absence can keep someone out of a job doesn’t even signal work readiness for a particular field but instead serves as a signal of general competence. (Art history majors, anyone? Geography majors, for that matter?) And yet, even 15 years into a career, not having a degree or not having the right degree can still mean that you aren’t able to get a job that you are capable of doing.

One of the exciting things about MOOC education is that it is laying bare some of the contradictions in credentialed education. Why should it be necessary to have a degree just for the sake of having a degree, if there are other ways to get an education? If you can do the work, why should the credential you hold matter at all?

If the only reason to have a degree is because HR said so (not a very good reason), then it might be possible for MOOCs and other non-credentialed education to offer other pathways to employment. The company that finds alternative ways to select candidates for work readiness stands to clean up in the talent market.


Multiple pathways from education to employment

Of course, I don’t think HR policies are going to change tomorrow. But I do think it is possible for people who already hold degrees to demand that their efforts at continuing education be taken seriously. Let me start: I have a master’s degree, and I am telling you that my business education, which is entirely MOOC-based, is more relevant, useful, and applicable, than either of my degrees when it comes to preparing me for the work that I do. And I can back up that claim with a portfolio that shows how I’ve put my education into practice. (I’ll be publishing it on this website very soon.) Can I get you (employer) to trust me when I say that I have a business education equivalent to an MBA? I believe that I can.

I imagine a future in which there are multiple pathways from education to employment. The traditional, degree-based pathway remains. But non-credentialed educational pathways are also available, when backed up by strong portfolios. As a middle ground, competency-based programs can credential learning that takes place outside of traditional universities.

Wouldn’t many people benefit from this kind of flexibility? I know I have.

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