$1B Lumina Foundation Backs New Education Credentials Framework

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that at least half of those graduating since 2006 think their degree was worth the outlay. But the poll also concluded that student loan debt can cause graduates to postpone their grad school plans and delay buying a house or car.

Although tuition costs and student debt have been rising, traditional higher education has enjoyed a powerful advantage in its long-established system of validation: Outside accreditation agencies examine the resources and educational methods of each college and university, then authorize them to grant certain degrees. Employers are accustomed to accepting college degrees as reliable proof of actual learning. Edtech companies have often partnered with accredited colleges and universities to share in that stamp of approval. The alternative—seeking accreditation themselves—could be time-consuming and costly.

Lumina and other advocates of credentialing innovation are turning the tables in a way, by experimenting with new standards for validating learning experiences, and by supporting unified credentialing systems for education both inside and outside academia. Working with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and the Center for Law and Social Policy, the foundation has proposed a beta Credentials Framework for the nation that would assess and compare a host of learning options, including college degrees, professional licenses and apprenticeships, badges from online courses, and certificates from on-site computer programming academies.

The foundation is also asking colleges and universities to submit their degree programs for evaluation by research projects like George Washington University’s credentials registry, and to Lumina’s own “Degree Qualifications Profile.”

The long-term Degree Qualifications Profile project aims to identify the key skills students should gain while earning an associate’s degree, BA, or MA in any subject. This skill set would include a mastery of specific knowledge related to each field, but would also encompass general abilities valued by employers such as communication skills, initiative, flexibility, leadership qualities, and experience working in teams.

“Our view is that the credential, whether a degree or a certificate, has to have value—to demonstrate that you know, or are able to do, certain things,” Merisotis says.

Lumina’s underlying vision is an educational network defined by somewhat standardized metrics and units, so that students can assemble the credentials they need for their career goals from a wide variety of sources. These might include colleges and edtech companies, but also institutions whose primary purpose is not teaching, such as libraries and businesses. Credits would be portable—leadership skills gained through a workplace project might count toward a college degree, for example. So might a biology certificate from a natural history museum.

Any unified database of learning options could also facilitate cost comparisons—which might encourage some students to cobble together an a la carte degree rather than pay tuition for all four years at a single college campus. This is a possibility that advocates of educational innovation, such as Mountain View, CA-based edtech company Edcast, call the “unbundling” of higher education.

It’s hard to say at this point whether educational technology, non-traditional learning options, and credentialing innovations will drain resources away from colleges and universities. Online courses can also amplify tuition revenues for established higher education institutions, because they can serve large numbers of students living across the globe.

Some universities are starting to adopt a modular approach to credentials, allowing students to begin by earning a certificate online, and then decide whether to apply those credits to work on a related master’s degree. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is offering such options in a data science curriculum offered through MOOC-hosting site Coursera. MIT has created a program in supply chain management using similar “stackable” credentials through EdX, another MOOC platform. Universities are also offering new degrees designed in part by employers to meet their hiring needs, such as Georgia Tech’s collaboration with Mountain View, CA-based edtech company Udacity and AT&T.

Yet many traditional higher education institutions are under strain, as state legislatures curb financial support for public universities, and some small liberal arts colleges struggle to survive. Critics question the marketplace value of doctoral degrees in the humanities, and even in overcrowded STEM fields such as the life sciences.

Merisotis sees online learning and other innovations in education as an opportunity for traditional campuses to transform themselves for a new era.

“Colleges and universities are going to continue to be a very important source of high quality credentialing,” Merisotis says.

If the educational market expands as Lumina envisions, the market for university PhD graduates may actually grow as edtech companies build more capacity for students, Merisotis says. Outside academia, private companies such as financial institutions still hire liberal arts majors from traditional schools, he says.

“What employers value most is deep, generalizable skills—critical thinking,” Merisotis says. “This is what we do best in a liberal arts context.”

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