A college diploma is not like Scotch anymore


Apr 30, 2015

This blog was first published on CompetencyWorks

Brand names are powerful. Many have written about the Chivas Regal effect in higher education in the United States. This is the phenomenon in which families, when faced with a choice between a less expensive and more expensive sticker price for tuition, are often willing to pay a premium because they assume that the higher price signifies better quality.

Over the years, although this imprecise proxy for quality has come under fire, many institutional leaders still believe that brand names will remain sacred. In my discussions with chief academic officers and faculty members from a range of institutions, they fully acknowledge that there is an undeniable economic urgency in higher education and that change is a-coming whether we like it or not. Despite such existential threats, I’m consistently posed versions of this recurring question: “Yeah, but elite schools will never be disrupted, right?”

No institution is invincible. Just look at the 213-page taskforce report on the future of education published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even a place like MIT has its doubts about the indomitable power of branding and tradition.

In this report from July 2014, the authors lay out the need for a place like MIT to “acknowledge the demand for increased flexibility in the curriculum and in the time it takes to complete a degree.” The report also asserts that MIT must “remove barriers to access and improve the affordability of an MIT education.”

MIT envisions a future in which “the very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” Learning will happen in modules as opposed to courses. This particular idea of modules recapitulates the concept of modularization that Clayton Christensen and I outline in our mini-book, Hire Education. We discuss how online competencies, in particular, have a flexible architecture. This enables learning providers to create a repository of modules and serve as a cost-effective way of stacking modules of learning together in service of stackable credentials for a variety of disciplines, specializations, or industries.

Addressing the promise of alternative credentials, the MIT taskforce outlines how the future of education does not simply entail four-year degrees but a variety of certifications, minors, or alternative credentials that could be housed in its XSeries program. MITx already offers three XSeries certificates in Aerodynamics, Computer Science, and Supply Chain Management. MIT understands that its campus population is changing and views these kinds of pathways as vital to reaching more students and attending to the “vast unmet need for access to high-quality education.”

For students who desire a more traditional learning experience, MIT imagines a future in which these students will matriculate after having already taken multiple massive open online courses (MOOCs) or community college general education courses. These students will be searching for more experiential learning that centers on problem solving, making and doing, as well communicating, and learning across disciplines and contexts, and MIT is already thinking about how to adapt pedagogical practices and cater specifically to these students.

For many institutions—not just MIT—this emphasis on problem solving and experiential learning will need to focus on how learning to know translates clearly into learning to do in the workforce. Let’s be clear though: This isn’t about assembly-line training or pure career technical education (CTE) training; this is about real-world applications of knowledge.

Whatever their philosophical concerns about the purpose of a college education, faculty members must acknowledge that students are and will be looking for the direct economic relevance of their studies. The rising cost of college is forcing students to question the returns on their higher education investments.

Online competency-based pathways will be especially attractive to students seeking those direct links to the workforce. Not only are these innovators pushing on price, but they are also offering briefer, more convenient, direct, and personalized pathways to skills that employers can understand and validate.

Elite brands may have carry heft now, but sooner than most people think, we’re going to see the rise of more and alternative learning providers. And most institutions will never have even heard of these other brands: these alternative providers will collaborate (and already are) with employers; they will identify a line of inquiry—a human capital problem to be solved—determine the competencies, and customize a program with the requisite modules to get students the right skills. And they will have an enormous competitive advantage without needing to submit to the rat race of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The network effect of industry-validated experiences will likely supersede the signaling effect of diplomas from many accredited—even prestigious—institutions.

All institutions of higher education will have to think critically about how they offer learning, justify their costs, and adapt their curricula to the changing needs and demands of students, as well as to our rapidly evolving knowledge economy. No one institution has this all figured out, but I’d take my cue from MIT, an institution that is clearly not resting on its laurels: Standing still is not an option.


Michelle R. Weise, PhD

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.