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Jailbreaking the Degree: The End of the 4-Year Diploma

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

What’s wrong with getting a college degree? According to the grassroots movement, "Jailbreaking the Degree," being pushed by radical education startup Degreed.com, quite a bit. The organization has identified several fundamental flaws with the long standing college degree process. It aims to overcome them and dramatically change the nature of learning and credentialing in the process. In order to justify their initiative they present some dramatic numbers on their website:

  • "Only 53% of students graduate with a ’4-year’ degree in 6 years.
  • Learning has never been more available and inexpensive, yet the cost of (formal) education continues to rise at 3x the rate of inflation.
  • 17: The number of years it takes for tuition to TRIPLE. Also, the number of top universities that are offering Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) in 2012, for free but not for ‘credit’.
  • $27,000: The average current student debt. Education should not be a ‘debt’-sentence.
  • $122,000,000,000 ($122 Billion): The amount spent on education this year that will never result in a student obtaining a degree.
  • $335,776: The cost for a child born today to attend an average (4-yr public/private) university when they graduate in 18 years from now.
  • $1,038,000,000,000 (yes.. that’s a trillion): The amount of student debt outstanding as of Oct. 2012, which will soon surpass the total national debt owed to China.
  • 46,200,000 is the number of Americans over the age of 25 with a partial degree."
    (Degreed.com/foundingscholars)

Here’s a look at the movement and their idea for life beyond the formal university degree.


(Degreed.com)

The Movement
According to Degreed, there are numerous issues with the current process involved in obtaining academic credentials, which are essential for 21st Century employment, but are available only through the formal university system. As free and informal learning options like MOOCs, Khan Academy, and MentorMobU become more widely available, this limitation of acknowledging only higher education as a valid source of learning becomes increasingly archaic. In their fundraising video, Degreed points out several reasons why the present system is no-longer a good match for our fast-paced, hyper-connected, technology-driven society.

  • Degrees don’t need to be one size fits all: In a world where individualization of learning is more of a possibility than ever before, it makes little sense for college degrees to be cookie cutter products that don’t differentiate between those who hold them.
  • Smaller chunks make learning individualizable: Just like the digital music movement, where the album has been broken down into its discrete parts (songs) which consumers can choose or not choose to acquire to add to their music collections, Degreed is looking to make it possible for learners to piece together their own unique degree from various sources.
  • We should acknowledge course-level accomplishments: Playing off of the statistic that there are 46 million Americans with incomplete college degrees, this initiative looks to make courses the unit of accomplishment rather than the degree, thus individuals could more easily complete a degree over a longer time period and from more diverse sources of learning.
  • Leveling up, course by course for your entire life: One of the more interesting points made by the folks at Degreed is that currently, for most people, learning, and especially informal learning, ceases to "count " after a college degree is completed. With a digital lifelong diploma, everything learned over the course of an individual’s lifetime could be considered. Not only does this allow a more complete picture of each person, it also inspires people to engage in lifelong learning.

To begin their project Degreed has thus far catalogued every official course offered at an American college or university as well as catalogued thousands of informal, free, online learning opportunities. They are now looking to develop a way to measure non-course related learning such as conference participation, badges, assessments, certifications, and media production.

Limitations of a Digital Lifelong Diploma
This seems like a logical and fairly straight forward process- one that makes sense given the power of the Internet to deliver free content, and the current crisis of student debt that is putting young college graduates in inescapable economic holes before they even graduate. However, any initiative of this magnitude and vision is going to have significant hurdles to overcome on its way to implementation. Here are a couple potential pitfalls:

  • Acceptance and Stakeholder Buy-in: There are so many stakeholders in this process that it is difficult to even account for all of them let alone get buy-in from each potential content provider, degree granting institution, and employer. Having all of these parties on board is, however, essential to any long term success. The most significant obstacle to this program may be the fact that universities would lose their corner on the market of supplying credentialed workers. Higher education will resist this movement as long as possible before they have to abandon their current structure and rethink the entire monetization process of learning.
  • Are Degreed’s Scores Any More Meaningful than Getting a 4.0?: A significant feature of this program is that it intends to replace the A,B,C grade format with a cumulative, lifelong learning score that is intended to more accurately reflect the degree holder’s mastery of smaller chunks of content. Ultimately though, any number is nothing more than an abstract representation of something. Unless Degreed can develop a schemata that intuitively equates their scores to concrete, measurable skills, knowledge, or outcomes, their program will be no more meaningful than what it intends to replace.

What Does the Lifelong Diploma Accomplish?
If Degreed can keep their momentum and create a real system that allows users to track all of the learning that happens over a lifetime, and employers begin accepting Lifelong Digital Diplomas as validation of potential employees worth, then Degreed just might have the answer to the question, "What is the future of education?" But those are two very big ifs. If they pull it off, the effects could be profound. Here’s why:

  • It creates a cosmology for all informal learning options – Right now; the informal learning landscape is fractured. Content can come from anywhere and anyone, and there is no validation of any of it for learners or people evaluating learners. The Digital Lifelong Diploma would provide a unifying framework for all informal and formal content that would level the playing field between the two types of content providers and help learners judge which options would be most beneficial to them and provide the best return on the investment of their time.
  • Learning will never stop mattering- Most importantly, this movement helps to make lifelong learning a more attractive option to everyone. We have a problem in the United States in that we do not value learning in any context in the way it should be. If there are real quantifiable measures of informal learning, we could be opening the doorway to helping people value the lifelong process that is largely invisible presently. This could be a revolutionary moment in making learning a more central focus of society as a whole.

In the final assessment, Jailbreaking the Degree will sink or swim based not on the merits of the idea, or the timeliness of the effort, but on public perception and the ability to break through the opposition from existing institutional forces that will, out of their own self-interest, seek to squelch the effort. All evidence points to the fact that we are at a breaking point with education and student debt and that major revolutionary change is on the horizon. Perhaps The Digital Lifelong Diploma will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?