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 (www.ellsberg.com) 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 TIME.com 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.

25 comments
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theworldofmarla
theworldofmarla

While they're at it, employers need to get rid of credit checks for employment screening. It really isn't a good measurement of character--especially in this economy.

Raul Felix
Raul Felix like.author.displayName 1 Like

I got out of the Army in 2009 at the age of 23. I had my supposed "developmental years" of 18-22 while in uniform, even though I've learned a hell lot since then. I went to college using my GI Bill and saw no point in what I was learning. So instead, I opted to get a job that paid me well (so I wouldn't be wasting my GI Bill) and start working on my writing and game design independently  instead of taking classes that were not relevant to me. Even though I'm such a long way from where I want to be, I'm happy not wasting time preparing for this exam or turning in that essay. Everything is self motivated by myself. 

Zia You
Zia You

It's great to see rationality spreading. If progressive decentralized forms of education and credit can bring equal or better results, then there is no reason at all not to switch to them now.

dianaRR
dianaRR

I attend a very non-ivy liberal arts college and currently double major in English and Philosophy and minor in Religious Studies, two majors and a minor that always incite the same question: "and what are you going to do with that when you graduate?" My response to such a question always centers around the fact that these fields, as well as many other fields in the liberal arts and sciences, increase the perspective I have of myself, my surroundings, America, world politics, other cultures, sciences, etc. Those who choose to pursue a liberal arts education, which can include business, marketing, communications, etc. majors, will, most likely, take courses in the humanities, which encourage young adults to become better citizens, role models for future generations and participants in the human experience; this is not to say that those who don't attend college will fail to be any of these things. College is not for everyone and not all eighteen year olds really want a formalized education. Learning does take place outside of the classroom by those who don't choose to attend college, those who wish to cut down a path of their own self-discovery. For the ones, however, who wish to enrich his/her knowledge of affairs and subjects beyond his/herself, my non-ivy college has proven itself, at least for me, to be a warm and fruitful place to do so.  

I'm positive that there are plenty of business graduates who don't believe that their college education was necessary to their success and, as this article suggests, if the improvement of the economy is really all that seems to matter to Ellsberg then college mustn't be necessary at all. 

In a world where miscommunication, cruelty and injustice persevere, pockets of solace do too. The institution of public education in America needs vast reconstruction and so does college tuition (!!). Still, college has been an environment of constant discussion, engagement and cultural immersion, which I would never hope to deny or discourage someone from experiencing if they are ready and willing to tackle it. 

 I am active in online social networking medias and see how the younger generation's involvement in such fields will be crucial to their landing a job. Ted Talks, Novas and other educational resources that can be found online are constantly endorsed by my professors, because they are eye-opening and honest, but one lecture by a famous professor, or lecturer, does not cover all that we are capable of learning in an entire semester. The news, media, etc. are so heavily focused on the "now;" it's college that can and often does become a beacon for reflection on the past and present, cultivating minds that are self aware and critical of their surroundings. 

Everything is always in need improvement, again, especially college tuitions, but a fantastic, enthusiastic educator is not. I find this article's advice to dissuade all students, except those who are going for "law, medicine and engineering," from pursuing a liberal arts education to be a self-involved insult. To encourage students to just blog and tweet and open an Ebay store is the least hopeful idea I've heard in a long time. 

rance
rance

 I actually agree that a liberal arts degree is more valuable than other degrees (unless it is medicine - the author is correct).  Business, Engineering, etc are "vocational" degrees.  And those vocational skills in demand are ever changing. Employers want people who can think and solve problems.  You can teach most anyone the vocational part of a job, but teaching them to think is much, much harder and something employers will not invest time in.  Look at the degrees from the CEO's from the top 500 companies - most are liberal arts degrees and there is a reason.

It is through a liberal arts degree, such as Philosophy, History, or Literature that students develop thinking skills.  The subject matter you use to learn those skills are unimportant, it is the skills to take known information and apply it to the unknown that is important.

My only concern is most universities don't teach liberal arts like they used to.  The subject matter is no longer broad in scope, but has become very myopic and singularly focused.  And students aren't introduced to ideas outside of political correctness, so they don't get the training a liberal arts degree used to provide.  This is one of the reasons employers are so focused on having the skills needed now.  They know they are unlikely to get college graduates who can actually think, so they settle with the technical skills.  It is also the reason why you get asked the question, "what are you going to do with your degree".  Liberal Arts degrees have declined in value because the education is not what it used to be.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

The harder question: why have higher ed costs, accelerated 2x the average rate of inflation, for 25 years?

We're waiting, Mr. Owebama.

YouCantBeSeriousCanYou
YouCantBeSeriousCanYou

 Do you need a grindstone for your axe?   The problem has existed for 25 years and you credit it on the most recent president. 

Perhaps it was also his policies on global warming that led to the last ice age ending and the glaciers melting?

Richard Pickrell
Richard Pickrell

Really? "One or to [sic] businesses..." Incredulous.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

How many sub-editors have been laid-off in the publishing business? Go on, look it up.

Joel Mason
Joel Mason

One or TWO successful businesses, even if they were small. Spelling counts.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Aside from out of control college expenses and student loans, one of the primary problems has been business's wholesale acceptance of college degrees as being the primary marker of a potential employees capabilities or potential value to their corporation.

Actual individual value and appropriateness for a particular position are determined by a lot of factors.

All too often, college degrees are just used as a time saving but often inappropriate and unnecessary pre-filter to the detriment of both the company and the individual.

max4374
max4374

I have to apologize for not taking the time to refute Ellsberg's arguments, but for now: these from a man who invented the "eye-gazing parties"? Really? This underhanded, and seemingly "harmless"  way of undermining the importance of higher education?

I recently saw Peter Thiel arguing for why most people shouldn't go to college, and I must say that I constantly find it surprising how arguments coming from people who are considered not only highly educated, but downright "geniuses", are truly simplistic.  Which leads me to think that either they are not so intelligent after all, or more likely, they are playing to a simplistic crowd...which more education could probably cure.

But then again, what do I know.  I never finished college.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

The post World War 2 sentiment of our parents that the only path to a better way of life was through the pursuit of formal higher education was both a myth and a formula for disaster.

It made Colleges and Universities giant business's who found every way possible to squeeze money out of their student patrons including inappropriate huge student loans that they would never be able to pay off.

We also ended up with a  huge educated middle class for whom the college level jobs just aren't available.

jason024
jason024

Colleges should stop complaining about people going outside of their "system." It is not our fault they charge an obscene amount of money for an education when you can get a  similar or better education  through personal experience. 

I get it. Ivy League and top tier schools are all about the  connections you get when you graduate. 

But those schools who are not at that level have nothing to complain about if they charge ridiculous amounts of money to force everyone to take what amounts to a high school English class. (Why it is needed to be taught in the first place is an indictment against our High Schools but is a separate complaint)

Although what passes for journalism these days (this article and blogs) makes me wonder if people need to go to college.

PeterA650
PeterA650

When I'm about to go under the knife, do you think I'm going to ask my surgeon how big his Twitter following is? Or whether he ever built his own business or not?

Get a fucking grip. And learn to spell!

rance
rance

 I believe the author specifically mentioned medicine as a field that does not fall into what he is talking about.  Did you actually read the article?

CharlotteBonnie
CharlotteBonnie

"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."

Get a fucking grip. And learn to read!

Roodle Scoot
Roodle Scoot

My key to credibility? SpellChek.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

Your spell-checker won't check "Chek?" I've never had that problem.

For real laughs, read the "Time" article by the retired English professor from E. Ill. Univ. Mister Miner is a good excuse, he says.

(I'm not going through the hassle of posting the URL. DISQUS requires more checks, and I am not going to F with it.)

Nicholas Z. Cardot
Nicholas Z. Cardot

I was just thinking the same thing. An article about education and credibility that is full of typos lacks the credibility needed to keep me reading to the end of the article. 

Shannon M. Coachman
Shannon M. Coachman

We also ended up with a  huge educated middle class for whom the college level jobs just aren't available. http://MayorMoney.blogspot.com

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

And so this great societal mea culpa now demands that we fix this  structural imbalance that exists between supply and demand for college educated persons. Hey! Let's start by eliminating H1-B visas and their brethren. And how about educational tracking like every other modern, industrialized country does? And of course, a collective moon shot has to be fired off in order fix the economy primarily via policies that re-shore manufacturing.

Sure . . . plow ahead with becoming a self-taught Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, personal web site guru. You may find it pays less than minimum wage.

Give me engineers, mathematicians, whiz bang scientists, great project managers, and middle-of-the-road politicians with reasonable income requirements and we'll get to work fixing the economy, while everyone else blogs about it, including M Ellsberg.