An alternative to the college degree?

Dov Goldstein pieced together a low-cost bachelor's degree with online courses and credit for knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish studies. He'd consider taking a critical thinking test to bolster his resume.

Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine. This fall the online course provider will offer students a critical thinking score.

Tess Vigeland: Economists talk about a college degree as a signaling device, a way to show employers you're a smart, responsible person who won't, say, take three-hour lunch breaks or permanently borrow furniture from the office. But that's pretty expensive proof. And as more people question the value of a college degree, they're looking for cheaper credentials.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: You hear it all the time on shows like this one.

Vigeland: Employers are demanding college degrees as a bare minimum.

Steve Henn: Employers are fixated on college degrees.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor, University of Wisconsin: Without some form of post-secondary education, it's very unlikely that you will be able to reach or stay in the middle class.

And yet the people who do the hiring say today's college graduates aren't cutting it.

Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities: Employers are telling us we're not doing a good enough job on critical thinking, communication skills, problem-solving skills.

Beth Kelly, president, ConnexSource: Most employers are ready to hire, but they can't find the talent they need.

Peter Zelinski, senior editor, Modern Machine Shop: The number one concern right now is finding skilled people.

Employers are hungry for better ways to measure a job applicant's skills. At the same time, individuals are looking for cheaper ways to get an edge in the workforce.

Enter alternative credentials, which offer new ways to certify what people know.

Burck Smith: We are in our global headquarters. So we're really not global, but...

Burck Smith is showing me around the offices of StraighterLine, a start-up in Baltimore that offers low-cost online courses. Students get credit at partner universities. And starting this fall, they'll be able bolster those credits with something new: A critical thinking score.

Smith: Employers say frequently that the one thing they want from new employees are critical thinking skills.

You know, the ability to solve complex problems, synthesize information, make decisions based on reason. Colleges measure these skills with a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. It's used mainly by schools to evaluate their teaching. Smith says StraighterLine will offer a version of the test directly to students for less than $100.

Smith: So students could put together 15 or 20 of our courses, they have a critical thinking skills score of x, they can take that to an employer and say, "This is comparable to a two-year degree." It's cheaper, it's faster.

In April, Dov Goldstein graduated with a bachelor's degree from an online university. He took a handful of low-cost courses at StraighterLine. He also got credit for knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish studies.

Dov Goldstein: So for my full bachelor's, it probably cost between $7,000 and $8,000.

Goldstein says he'd be interested in adding a critical thinking score to his degree.

Goldstein: Employers, you know, they're also going to be looking for other things which stand out over other people trying to get the same job.

There are other types of alternative credentials headed onto resumes. Say you sign up for a course in circuits and electronics at MITx. That's MIT's popular new program that lets students take courses online for free. Harvard has a similar program. You won't get college credit for the class. But you can earn a "certificate of mastery."

Kevin Carey: For a long time, the only way that people could really prove or demonstrate those kind of skills in the job market was the college degree.

Kevin Carey is director of education policy at the New America Foundation, a non profit think tank. He says if enough people bring credentials like certificates of mastery to employers, and then do really well at their jobs...

Carey: Those letters will mean just as much as a traditional college credit in the long run.

Another idea that's gaining traction is straight out of Girl Scouts. Remember those badges handed out for skills like cooking and pitching tents? This year the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla held a contest to spark ideas for digital badges

Cathy Davidson: A digital badge is something you can put on your website that basically says that you've been credentialed in a certain skill.

Cathy Davidson co-founded the group HASTAC that ran the competition. Eventually, she says an employer will be able to click on your resume and see that you earned a badge in something as technical as robotics or as hard to quantify as teamwork or leadership.

Davidson: For example, Google last year did a big survey of what made a Google employee valuable, and things like ability to communicate complex ideas to one's co-workers turned out to be very, very important.

So let's say I don't have a college degree. Can I go out with my collection of digital badges and a critical thinking score and compete with college grads for jobs? Not yet. But Davidson says big tech companies like Google and Microsoft are already using badges in hiring, and as more employers start taking alternative credentials seriously, they could challenge the monopoly of the traditional college degree.

In Baltimore, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine. This fall the online course provider will offer students a critical thinking score.

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