The Glorious End of Higher Education’s Monopoly on Credibility

In the past, the only way to get professional credibility was with a college degree. Now young people are using many different tools to gain a foothold in the business world.

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The times they are a changin’, and in this essay, I’d like to suggest they are changing in a way that has massive implications for education: sources of credibility—once the domain of expensive degrees–are becoming democratized, decentralized, and diversified.

In the past, there was pretty much one way to gain credibility: get some letters after your name, from as fancy an institution as possible.

Now, in 2012, I’ve seen dozens of young people who don’t even have college degrees use the following tools as sources of credibility in the business world:

  • A track record of having started one or two successful businesses, even if they were small.
  • Industry-related blogs with well-written, lively, detailed posts, which receive many comments and tweets/likes/shares per post.
  • An impressive About page on a well-designed personal website
  • Large, legitimate, real followings on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media networks.

Clearly, any discussion of higher education needs to distinguish between two basic and distinct concepts: learning, on the one hand, versus credibility about having learned.

Learning is and always has been available all around us, at every age and life stage, often inexpensively or even for free.

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Learning is available at the library for free; under a tree with a dog-eared paperback; at a job with a boss who gives you responsibility and mentorship; while traveling; while leading a cause, movement, or charity; while writing a novel or composing a poem or crafting a song; while interning, apprenticing, or volunteering; while playing a sport or immersing yourself in a language; while starting a business; and now, while watching a TED talk or taking a Khan Academy class, or via a zillion other ways on the Internet.

And yet, while learning has always been available around us, inexpensively, free (or even paid on the job), until recently, sources of credibility have been highly centralized, and highly expensive. There was basically only one source: higher education. The more elite, the better.

The Internet, however, is “changing everything,” as news stories tell us each day. One way it’s changing everything revolves around the concept of credibility.

Simply put–and much to the consternation of college administrators everywhere—the Internet is taking away higher education’s centuries-old monopoly on granting credibility.

True, in the most traditional of professions–law, medicine, engineering—old credibility systems are still strongly in place, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. I, for one, am happy my surgeon has a medical diploma on her wall.

Outside of traditional professions, however, these days you simply don’t need a stodgy old professor or some crapulent college dean in a ridiculous faux-medieval gown to tell you–and the world–that you’re credible in your field of study.

Rather, you can go out and build a business that demonstrates your credibility. You can put up a bunch of great blog posts or videos that demonstrate your credibility. You can build a following that demonstrates your credibility. You can get referrals from within a trusted social network attesting to your credibility.

To use a beloved buzzword of the Internet era, in most fields beyond traditional professions, credibility has become “disintermediated.” The gatekeepers and middlemen and cattle-herders of credibility (i.e., college admissions officers, professors, and bureaucrats) are finding some stiff competition from cheap, on-the-fly, decentralized solutions: via WordPress, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and LLC forms (i.e., the ability of nearly anyone, anywhere, to start their own business.

“But employers demand formal credibility,” I can hear skeptics saying. True, and they also used to demand white skin, and male private parts. It’s all changing. In addition to the valiant efforts of civil rights and women’s movement pioneers of the past, at a certain point, simple business logic also began (and continues) to prevail: Any firm that continues to insist on hiring only white males is missing out on oodles of non-white and female talent, and thus, is putting itself at a distinct disadvantage against its more open competitors.

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In a like manner, as more and more bright, talented young people explore various forms of self-education outside of formal institutions (due in large part to the increasingly ridiculous amounts of student debt and tuition associated with those institutions), the employers who continue to insists on stale paper credentials are increasingly missing out on some of the most dynamic, innovative minds of today’s youth.

Furthermore, a lot of these brilliant young minds aren’t seeking employers anyways. They’re seeking to become employers right away, bypassing the whole corporate ladder out of the gate.

In the midst of a massive jobs crisis, I can only view this as a good thing. America needs jobs, which means America needs to groom the next generation of job creators. One way we adults (including educators, parents, business leaders, and politicians) could aid in that process is by promoting the idea that creating a business is a worthy sphere of learning–as worthy as a classroom or a college curriculum.

We could also stop promoting the idea that college is a necessary credential for starting a business. It just isn’t. Nor is it clear that college is even that helpful in that endeavor–compared to other ways a young person could learn about starting a business (such as, for example, starting one.)

Let’s cut the BS about needing to learn everything important you’re ever going to learn in life between the ages of 18 and 22 while enrolled in college. And while we’re at it, let’s cut the BS about how a BA certifying these four years is the only form of credibility.

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Life is long these days–you can learn throughout, with or without college. And you can seek out credibility in a multitude of ways, many of which don’t involve oppressive mountains of student debt or regurgitated facts in lecture-hall quizzes.

In the meantime, you can start creating jobs now, for yourself and for others. America can’t wait, so get to it.


Michael Ellsberg ( is the author of The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think and It’s Not Too Late (Penguin/Portfolio). He spent two years interviewing the nation’s most successful people who didn’t graduate college, and who instead majored in street smarts. #FixYoungAmerica is working with to shed light on tried-and-true solutions to the epidemic of youth unemployment. This article is adapted from the official #FixYoungAmerica book, which includes solutions by 30+ organizations and leaders.