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Separate Learning from Credentialing

Break the connection between teaching students and certifying academic achievements to allow alternative ways of demonstrating competency.

Photo of Daniel Castro
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Across modern economies, innovators and entrepreneurs are marshaling the power of information technology to reorganize business processes and reimagine entire industries, thereby improving quality and lowering the costs of goods and services. But higher education has largely escaped such disruption, even as IT and the Internet have created new ways to research, learn, and impart knowledge. The reason is that colleges and universities hold a unique franchise: They are responsible for educating students and for granting them degrees. Schools thus lack incentive to help students learn outside the classroom, even if it would lower costs or be more effective, since it would cut into their revenue, and they lack incentive to raise standards for their degrees because it would drive away customers. Students meanwhile have little incentive to push themselves harder than necessary to earn their degrees, since degrees are opaque, deriving their value from institutional brands rather than clear measures of academic achievement. This paper argues that the federal government should spur reform by promoting alternatives to traditional college diplomas that allow individuals to more effectively demonstrate educational mastery to prospective employers. This would give students the freedom to pursue their own best options for learning, incentivize students to study harder and schools to teach better, and apply competitive pressure on colleges and universities to reduce the costs of education.

There are at least two major problems with allowing colleges and universities to control through granting of degrees the primary way learning outcomes are assessed. First, these institutions usually limit students from mixing and matching various, and usually cheaper, ways of learning, such as community college courses, massively open online courses (MOOCs), or self-study, if students want to receive the “sheepskin” showing mastery. So even though information technology should be making higher education more efficient, tuition costs are rising faster than inflation, making college less affordable. Second, since each college and university has its own grading practices and degree standards, students, parents, and employers have little ability to compare the quality of education that different schools provide for a particular degree. Instead, each school is evaluated mostly on reputation and other factors such as quality of its facilities, notoriety of its graduates, and SAT scores of entering students. This lack of transparency regarding outcomes diminishes the incentives schools have to compete on how well they actually educate students, and also the need for students to work hard, because many know this will have limited bearing on their future employment prospects, as long as they do enough to simply earn a diploma. This is one explanation of why the quality of higher education in the United States is uneven, and many college graduates enter the workforce underprepared. 

If we want more educational innovation and lower costs, as well as higher-quality educational outcomes, then it is time to break the legacy connection between teaching students and certifying their academic achievements and move to a model where students have alternative ways of demonstrating their knowledge and skills. But this is in part a chicken-or-egg problem, with employers still relying on degrees and students not having access to alternative accreditation systems. The federal government should solve this by fostering the creation of a national network of certified organizations that assess the learning and skills of young people before they enter the workplace. Congress can move America’s higher education system in this direction by taking the following steps:

  • Establish a process to accredit organizations that provide certifications;
  • Encourage federal agencies to accept alternative certifications in lieu of degree requirements;
  • Require the administration to encourage the private sector to recognize and rely on alternative certifications in their hiring decisions;
  • Allow students to use federal aid for alternative learning options, such as MOOCs;
  • Ensure graduate programs consider applicants with alternative certifications; and
  • Require the administration to conduct a regular survey of employer needs.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

This idea is designed to make those providing higher education more accountable to students and make those offering degrees and certifications more accountable to employers. The goal is to create better market dynamics so that students can get higher quality, lower cost education, and employers can get better information on potential employees. Both of these changes create positive feedback loops that encourage greater learning and market efficiency.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

This proposal was originally designed for Congress. How else might this idea get bootstrapped to overcome the chicken-and-egg problem? How else might be experiment with this idea?

Tell us about your work experience:

This proposal was developed by Joe Kennedy, Daniel Castro, and Robert Atkinson at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-profit think tank.


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Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Daniel,

Thank you for posting and highlighting what is wrong with the system.

Could something like Micro Credentials for Non-College-Bound Students help?

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