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Hacking a Credential

How many different sources of college credit are on your final undergrad transcript?

Photo of Lisa Baird
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I grew up in the Dallas 'burbs. I got accepted into UT Austin, and that summer after high school, I took two freshman courses at my local community college just to get a leg up. I also eeked out a couple of AP course credits from high school. Once I finally got to UT, I CLEP'ed out of a couple more things and took one of my required courses at Austin Community College.  So I think my undergrad transcript was ultimately hacked together with five sources of college credit—two community colleges, two credit-by-exam programs, and one university. It all happened via word-of-mouth. I would hear that you could get credit for this or that, or that you could transfer in credits from this community college for that class, and voilà—hacked undergrad. But I grew up in the Dallas 'burbs; I had a well-resourced high school, two engaged parents, and a bunch of college-bound peers. I had a highly-functioning word-of-mouth system that I didn't even have to seek out. But what happens to people who don't? What's their word-of-mouth

Specifically, please check all that apply:

  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

It's been a circuitous route through banking and higher-ed, but I wound up a designer at IDEO!

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Even traditional baccalaureate/residential students want to hack together a degree. My insight is sometimes it's not that the system only fails the "New Normal Student"... it's just that they have the fewest pistols on their belt to respond to the offense.


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Photo of Jawad Ali

Hey Lisa,

Good point about how the credit transfer system can be confusing and opaque. I grew up in the Houston suburbs and transferred credits to Texas A&M, other students I knew did 2 years in community college and transferred in...getting the same degrees with less cost and less time! At some level there needs to be an incentive for the University to make transferring credits (which may lower their own course enrollment, tuition, etc) easier.

Your question leads to more important is equivalency? is it similar enough to test out of a course as having the experience of taking it with classmates/professors? what are the consequences of taking away the prestige of a degree from a known institution and replacing it with a generic badge system? Our MedTech Innovation Course is something that we are interested in getting some kind of certificate for!

Perhaps the most practical next step is good counseling across the board for high school students...maybe with an open web-based platform. I know many that didn't really know what the SAT was used for or what AP classes were.

Photo of Jessica Vechakul

Hi Lisa,
Thanks for sharing about your experience. I wonder what you think about programs like the General Assemby UX training to get the skills needed for a career transition. I know it's not the same as getting credit towards a college degree but perhaps it's another way to move forward towards getting a job.

Photo of Lisa Baird

IMO if a reputable (not necessarily large—simply reputable) employer finds it sufficient, then that's all that matters. Because your second employer will rely on the reputation of the first employer, and so forth. People need a bite-size way to enter the workforce quickly, where their education and personal brand-/skill-building really takes off. I was talking to a BFD college president the other day who brushed off GA and other bootcampy things by saying they were only for "already bachelors degree" people.... as if 10 years of Clay Christensen innovation theory (ahem, disrupters enter thru the "bottom" of the market) had somehow skirted his twitter feed. Le sigh.....

Photo of Lucy Chen

Lisa Baird I am on a zigzagy path of taking my college very slowly haha. Good to see a designer like you coming a long way!

Have you checked out the OpenBadge system?
It is a tech system developed by EU and Mozilla to help alternative educational organizations to establish credit system, open sourced as accessible API.

Given more alternative education systems emerge, it would be interesting to translate the learning experience into a more acceptable form of credition. What do you think?

Photo of Lisa Baird

Lucy, great point! I think the Open Badge system has huge potential. One interesting aspect: they describe themselves by saying, "As a disruptive innovation, Open Badges are reimagining ways to recognize learning beyond formal credentialing systems." ... What if the system of Open Badges *became* the formal credentialing system? They talk about recognizing learning "beyond" formal structures like universities, but what if an entire undergraduate education could be badged instead of printed on a registrar's transcript? I could imagine a badge for Sociology, another badge for American History, another badge for Business Calculus! (just remembering some of my toughest freshman year courses). If this existed, it would be almost like an enormous, totally comprehensive, institution-agnostic, assessment-driven, nationwide (even global?) articulation schema. Now THAT's exciting. It's like being able to use a single currency anywhere!

Photo of Lucy Chen

but one challenge would be credibility. Any standardization of a system would suffer from credibility, like SAT.

However, it would be another story if it is a tool for students to use to develop a narrative of their learning outcomes and learning journey.

Photo of Denise M Dekker

Audey Seawright 

Beth is a forty-something year old woman, who has reached the pinnacle of her career and wants to return to school to complete her undergraduate degree. For the past 20 years, she has taken classes, such as Spanish and advanced Microsoft suite, to advance her job skills. However, she wants to go to college to complete a B.A. AND retrain in a new, marketable career.
+ Works full-time, is married and has a kid
+ Needs some type of financial assistance to leave job and cover some costs 
+ Afraid of obliterating savings when she should be saving for her daughter's education
+ Has multiple college credits that are scattered and not necessarily applicable towards a degree

Photo of Audey Seawright

Hacking a Credential 

I’ve attempted to create a some personas for a few imagined extreme cases of learners coming from divergent backgrounds but with the common need to hack a credential. These are abstractions of people who need to make progress in higher education and they have particular pains/challenges on the way to earning a credential or degree. Maybe it is the case that traditional ways of accessing education has not met their need or feels out of reach. These are imagined learners! What I've drafted are points of pain challenges from conversations I have had talking to other non-traditional learners.

If this seems useful, imagine a persona in the comments section! Thank you for pondering.

Gil is an accounts receivable clerk at a manufacturing plant in Homer, LA. She knows she has the chops to understand advanced accounting and finance and wants to advance in her career at her current company, but she’s not sure how to get started on the path toward a credential or degree, or even what is mode is appropriate. She lives far away from a public university but fairly close to several junior college and vo-tech schools that offer lower division credits toward a B.A. in Finance or Accounting.
+ wants to advance career with accounting or finance credential or degree
+ works full time and supports a family, but has the time to dedicate to 12 hours per semester if she can do it remotely or close to home
+ lives far away from public university but near to vo-tech and junior colleges

Armand is a veteran living in Oakland, CA who entered the civilian workforce 10+ years ago has a few transcripts including military service (SMART, ARRTS, ACE, JST) and online classes at public universities amounting to about 12 transferable credits. He wants to apply for a traditional Bachelor of Science program in kinesiology and hopes to go onto graduate school. He works full time at a physical fitness training facility where he has take several certificate programs in personal training.
+ has multiple transcripts, about 12 hours of credit
+ wants to apply for a B.S. program
+ has hopes to go on to graduate school

Lenora is a 50+ year old oil and gas worker from McCloud, OK who has a concerns about a changing economy and a fear that she can’t do the same kind of physical labor that she has done at her job for the past 15 years. She has aspirations to teach early childhood education and she has taken some MOOC courses in early childhood development. Now she wants to get a teaching credential, but just found out she needs about 30 more transferable credits in upper and lower division courses before she can take the credential exam.
+ fear of a changing economy and limited retirement funds
+ wants to transition into a role that is less physically demanding
+ has some MOOC credits in early childhood education
+ needs transferable courses to qualify to take the credential exam

Kiaan is an advanced high school student in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. He has taken 24 MOOCs (massive online open courses) in math, science, computer programming, English language, and art history at more than 10 colleges and universities around the world. He would like to earn a credential or degree, but his courses are spread out at institutions throughout the world and there is no degree granting institution that recognizes his cross registration or accomplishments at multiple universities
+ advanced high school student international student
+ wants to earn a credential or degree
+ COMPLETED more than 24 MOOCs across 10 universities
+ institutions do not grant MOOC based credentials or do not recognize cross registration

Photo of Shawnim

Audey Seawright 

Ranah is a refugee living in Los Angeles, California who immigrated to the United States in her early 20s. She spent two years earning educational credit towards a pharmaceutical degree in her home country, but was required to start her degree from the beginning upon immigrating to the United States. This meant she had to retake all of the introductory courses for her degree, while also working close to full time to support her non-English speaking family. She works part time as a barista while also serving as an Arabic tutor for Arabic language students. Additionally, she has work experience in her field, having worked as a lab tech before her immigration--but none of this experience is considered to be "standard" by American universities. Spending another 4 years in school repeating courses she has already taken as well as learning English fluently is time-consuming for her. 
+ two years research experience working as a lab tech
+ wants to earn a complete degree in order to work in her field
+ has transcripts from her home country's institution
+ wishes to complete a degree in the most cost-effective way possible

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Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Audey Seawright

I'm graduating in December from a B.A.-Sociology program. I will have 5 institutions granting credit on my final transcript. I started in 2002 right after graduation from high school, but fulfilling my service in the US Army meant postponing higher education for a time. After the service I needed to work so I pursued credits towards my B.A. on a part-time basis while working full time in technology. If I could connect all of the MOOC's, weekend trainings, practical experience, and college coursework I have taken toward the underpinnings of a computer science program I would well positioned to take some more advanced coursework now and maybe hack out a credential or certificate of achievement before grad school starts in the Fall. As it stands there are a lot of prerequisites necessary to start formalizing what I already know about data structures and introductory programming, but I will spend a lot of time and money demonstrating that to a degree or certificate granting institution when I could be doing work with an achievement outcome. How might we hack a minor, certificate of achievement, or a an additional credential along the way to achieving a degree?

Photo of Lisa Baird

I love this post. This "how might we" question is spot-on!

Photo of Sandy Fischer

We must now hope that employers will recognize self directed pursuits are more difficult than following a curriculum

Photo of An Old Friend

Hi Lisa. It is interesting that you were able to do this and I can assume it is by no means easy. That said, I think even if an institution's policy allows this to occur and it is well known to the student body there could still be significant difficulties.

My undergraduate education is composed of courses from 4 different institutions (plus AP courses), only 2 of which appear on the main transcript. At the present time, due to continuing teacher education as well as multiple directions I took in grad school, I currently have around eight transcripts. Sometimes it can be hard to manage all the paperwork if I need them for a work or further education opportunity. While I'm not hacking any of this together really the same way you did, I think the sheer difficulty of even gathering the correct documents can sometimes be challenging, even when credit transfer is not the objective. And then if someone studied abroad, got married, changed their SSN (yes, if you have serious ID theft, you can do it), etc. it can potentially become exponentially more complicated.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Harrison! Thank you for your insights. It sounds like a bit of a nightmare, especially if (as is often the case), you need to get this documentation together at the last minute. 

Do you think think a central system using blockchain might be the answer?

Photo of Kate Rushton

Great post, Lisa!

Hacking the system is only possible if you know how to hack it. It echoes James McBennett 's post here -

It seems like there needs to be a resource so that everyone can become aware of how they can build their own degree like the Lego brick model posted here -

You don't have to give specifics, but have you saved time and money by 'hacking' and by how much?

I like that you mentioned your "circuitous route through banking and higher-ed, but I wound up a designer at IDEO". Thinking of your University period, what courses, experiences, and activities helped you most in your post-University life. How have you kept your knowledge and skills up-to-date post-graduation?

Are there similarities or differences to Catherine Tang 's - and Gavin Cosgrave 's - experiences?

Photo of Lisa Baird

Yes, I saved time and money by hacking together credits from other sources—but honestly not much. The real reason I did all the hacking was to minimize my exposure to the university's hulking, inflexible bureaucracy. I wanted to work (intern) 20 hrs/wk during college. That meant I needed to have light semesters (only 4 classes instead of 5), and I needed to compress my class schedule into 8am-12pm each morning so I could work 1-5pm each afternoon. If the class I needed was only offered at some undesirable time, I'd figure out another way to get the credit.

But for me, working through school was optional—it was about my C.V., not my survival. That's not the case for many. And just imagine having children on top of everything! Among other challenges. It boggles the mind.

The "New Normal Student" is literally not the human being for whom the existing postsecondary system was designed. Nothing about the current system fits, respects, adapts to, responds to, or even acknowledges the immoveable characteristics of the "New Normal Student" human being. It is like a pair of ill-fitting pants: feels terrible, looks terrible, is terrible.

As Tim Brown noted in the recent NYTimes #redesign issue (, "I think we've potentially never been in a period of history where there are so many things that are no longer fit for purpose." He's onto something regarding "fit." There is a serious (mis)fit issue here. The human and the designed system are like utter strangers.