The Coming Badge Revolution

For about the last thirty years, one of the key elements in job hunting was being able to show that you had completed a college degree. Without a degree, a great many doors to career paths were locked. Often, it was irrelevant what the degree was in and how much you had learned; employers assumed that just having a college degree indicated a reasonably good level of skill and trainability.

Screening people based on their possession of a college degree made some sense at one time, but as American higher education has succumbed to pressures to lower academic standards, degrees have in many cases become empty credentials that don’t necessarily betoken any advanced knowledge, skills, or desirable occupational traits.

Strike one against the degree.

In recent years, there has been tremendous growth and improvement in online education. People have been discovering that they don’t have to enroll at College X, take the courses it requires and some of the electives offered to earn its degree. “Buying” education that way was like going into a grocery store and buying a bag of food, unable to tell how good most of the items in the bag would be. Many of the courses are taught indifferently and thanks to grade inflation, it’s impossible for truly diligent students to shine. Besides that, students find themselves taking a lot of courses not because they really want to, but because they have to get enough credits somehow.

Strike two.

The college degree is still in the batter’s box, but the pitcher may be winding up to throw strike three. That would be a system that allowed students to shop around for the educational products they really want and show their mastery and skills through objective assessments—and which employers (or others who wanted to evaluate the individual) would trust.

That pitch may be speeding toward the plate.

It takes the form of a new “ecosystem” comprising badges that certify specific competencies and e-portfolios that allow the individual to show evidence of his or her accomplishments and abilities.

In a recent post, Andrew Coulson, director of Center for Educational Freedom at Cato Institute, wrote, “Thanks to the Web, the material covered in virtually every undergraduate program is readily available at little cost…And, having learned it spend a few hundred dollars to create a website or a YouTube channel on which you demonstrate your new skills/understanding. Conduct research. Write it up. Build something…. Then, when you’re ready to apply for work, submit your resume with a link to this portfolio of relevant work.”

Coulson went on to suggest a name for these portfolios that take the place of degrees: savoir-faire. Translation: “know how to do.” Wouldn’t it be more useful to see evidence of what a person knows how to do than a piece of paper attesting that he accumulated enough college credits to get a degree?

Those ideas have been kicking around for some years, but it appears that they are really starting to take hold.

Back in March, the heavyweight MacArthur Foundation announced the winners in its “Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition.” (You can read all about that competition here.) The array of winning entries is very wide, including one that engages children in nature-based exploration and another that aims at teaching the competencies involved with sustainable agriculture.

Two that I find to be of particular interest are the Manufacturing Institute’s idea for a National Manufacturing Badge System and the Military Badges for Civilian Work project, which will help veterans by enabling them to certify their skills and knowledge to prospective employers. Here is why these and similar programs are important: young people who are interested in education that will enhance their marketable skills will turn increasingly to badges and competence certifications and away from just enrolling in college because it is supposedly necessary to getting a “good” job. 

It’s already widely known that possession of a college degree is no guarantee of landing a good (or even any) job—perhaps that’s the sole virtue of the OWS protests—and once the idea spreads that attractive jobs are open to people who have the proper training, the demand for college degrees will plummet.

There is growing support for this new educational “ecosystem.” Individuals who are looking for help in promoting their abilities and accomplishments through the new medium of “e-portfolios” will find it the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning. You can read about AAEEBL here. While it has only been in existence since 2009, AAEEBL appears to be gaining traction for the new world of learning and certification. Particularly interesting is the joint forum on e-portfolios at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges & Universities. At least some college officials see this as an important development.

None of that will matter much, however, unless employers shift away from their widespread practice of screening out applicants who don’t have college credentials. For several decades now, American businesses have been requiring college degrees for more and more jobs and those requirements now cover much of the employment landscape, just like kudzu has been spreading over rural areas in the South. (That has a lot to do with a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, which made it legally hazardous for employers to test directly for worker aptitudes. As a result, employers turned to a legally safe proxy for the traits they sought, namely college degrees. This Pope Center paper discusses the issue.)

Apparently, the business community is becoming less enamored of college credentials and more open to considering individuals on the basis of their savoir faire. In a Wall Street Journal article published last January, “No More Resumes, Say Some Firms,” writer Rachel Silverman looked into the growing interest among companies in looking at e-portfolios instead of the old-fashioned resume. She cited the example of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures that, when searching for a new analyst, asked applicants to send links to demonstrate their “Web presence,” along with short videos demonstrating their interest and aptitude.

Old habits are hard to break. The established means of showing your qualifications are not about to disappear, but younger and more web-savvy people are moving into positions where they can reshape business policies. That will almost certainly lead to a shift away from reliance on degrees and paper resumes, towards badges, e-portfolios, and savoir faire.