Posted by: crudbasher | November 10, 2010

Using Certifications to Replace Degrees

I have spoken several times on this blog about how I think the concept of a degree is becoming obsolete. It’s a standardized way to measuring people who we don’t want to be standardized at all.  The skills in the upcoming decades that will be most values will be critical thinking and creative problem solving.  There are no degrees that actually measure these qualities.  In fact I submit that very little progress has been made in quantifying these skills.

What we need is a more useful way of certifying a person’s knowledge, qualities and skills.  A standardized test can measure knowledge but that part of the equation is much less important than it used to be with this age of vast amounts of knowledge at our fingertips.

Tech companies have faced this problem for decades.  An example is Microsoft.  One of their big businesses is servers.  Specifically networking and server operating systems.  The problem they faced is companies are reluctant to purchase a Microsoft server if they can’t get anyone qualified to maintain it.  Therefore Microsoft came up with a training system where people can take classes and get a certification.  The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer or MCSE is a good example. It’s expensive to get this certification, but it is a key way to land a good job in the IT field.

You can’t go to a university and get a MCSE certification (to my knowledge).  So what we have is a private company getting into the education field.

The only reason this works is because the companies who hire MCSE grads trust Microsoft to adequately certify their grads. So what we have is a system based on reputation.  If Microsoft started handing out MCSE certs to just anyone, the system would rapidly collapse.

So, why can’t this system work in other areas?  I can see a time where a group of History professors goes freelance.  They create their own group (I call it a guild).  They offer to certify people for a fee.  It’s not accredited at all, it just runs on their reputation. Their reputation will also be built by the people they say are certified so they have to be careful as to who they take on.

Something like this system would not have been possible even 5 years ago, but with the advent of Social Networking it is not only possible, but I believe it’s inevitable.

So how could something like this arise?  Well, if budgets get really cut for colleges, lots of professors will find themselves out of work.  They could adjunct freelance, and supplement that with a certification business.

Therefore with the current economic times and the skyrocketing tuition rates, I think something like this will arise in the next few years.

So is there any flaws or holes in my thinking?  I’m interested in your thoughts!



  1. One way the certification process developed recently was with GIS (Geographic Informations Systems). When ESRI and other companies started to distribute their incredibly powerful GIS software throughout government and then into the business and educational markets, instructors, expert users, and entry level practitioners were needed. Talented people could get terrific starting jobs being self-taught, or by getting instruction through ESRI, or then, by getting certificates through forward-thinking educational organizations. But then, education and the powers-that-be caught on to the value and now there are degrees galore…and degrees are pretty much required. The window for resourceful self-starters was only about 5-9 years.

    It seems that many factors will influence whether a guild or reputation will work together in a field to offer a “stamp” of skill.

    So much depends upon how many professionals want to allow others onto their level, that they themselves had to reach through multiple degrees.

    Also, many groups of professionals have strong unions that prevent “membership” unless certain criteria are met.

    The software industry was renegade from the beginning and many of the top brass got to their positions through sacrifice, talent, hard work, and luck and not so much through degree-granting institutions…so the “top down” attitude is one of rewarding “like” minded individuals.

    It almost seems that certifications related to the CULTURE and MINDSET of a field might have the traction to take hold, rather than a general system of certifications that would cut across many professional fields.

    PS Great topic!

    • Hmm that is a really interesting point you bring up. When a new technology comes on the scene, it takes a while before formal education can start to offer training in it. However, I would submit that technologies are appearing much faster and at an accelerating rate. Could it be possible that universities will end up behind the tech curve? In other words, by the time a college comes out with some kind of training, the industry will have moved on. I can see a time where a new web technology comes out one week, goes viral the next and has 200 million users after a month. Businesses will be scrambling to get people who can do this new thing. A smart entrepreneur will be online offering classes when that happens. It’s hard to say for sure.

      Thanks so much for commenting! Those were some really great points!

      • One way, at least in California, that the critical need by employers for new tech competent people is being met, is through ROP, advanced high school classes, and community college courses. Administrators can get practicing professionals into ROP classrooms and community college classrooms and online pretty quickly, but the development time for a course to be pitched, organized, publicized, set up to accept enrollment, and start is still around 12 months. And the pay is between $2k – 4k to develop a course, and then the regular $44 per hour to teach it (with additional pay for over-enrolled classes).

        You are right…if a group of practicing professionals set up courses that would satisfy employer requirements or be accepted as fulfilling prerequisites for upper division courses at 4-year institutions…it would work.

        Also, we have “open university” courses in the California system and they are “full pay”…not subsidized…and people take them when they need to fulfill requirements or when a course is not available through the regular university system…that could be another way.

        In the fine art fields, some of the most respected institutions were not “credit” granting. Example: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

        Now, you got me interested in this whole subject…so I investigated what it would take to become an accrediting body for an area of study…hmmm, Andrew…this looks doable. Take a look at this site:

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by, Andrew Barras. Andrew Barras said: New Post: Using Certifications to Replace Degrees #edchat #edreform #highered […]

  3. It’s worth pointing out that, to at least some in IT, the MCSE is seen as not as valuable as some make it out to be, precisely because it does a poor job of certifying critical thinking skills. For better or for worse, it can be seen as training you to press the right buttons at the right time. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, just that one obstacle this sort of program would have would be gaining broad acceptance as a certification not only of discrete, procedural skills, but of more abstract ones.

    Moreover, since, as you note, abstract and critical skills will universally be important in the future, the cross-disciplinary approach of colleges and universities still seems to me like it might be the most effective and efficient way of imparting/developing these skills.

    • Hi Daniel. I’m not in the IT field but have some knowledge of it. I don’t refute your evaluation of the value of the MCSE cert. You may in fact be completely right.

      I think my use of that as an example wasn’t so much as an example of teaching critical thinking as it was of an alternate, accepted certification route.

      I do wonder too at what stage of the university experience critical thinking skills are taught. I am skeptical it’s in the undergrad phase. Classes of 800 and standardized tests seem to preclude much freedom to explore.

      We are in complete agreement though that it would be a “tougher sell” to hand out certificates for critical thinking. Still I can see how it could happen. Perhaps someone like Seth Godin would put together a training program?

      Thank you very much for contributing your thoughts!!

      • One thing you might consider is something like the IB Theory of Knowledge course, which is, after all, taught to high school students and would ostensibly work fine for undergrads. It’s an epistemology course, so while not focusing on critical thinking exclusively, it gives you some kind of a framework for evaluating claims to truth:

  4. I highlighted your post in my Daily Digest of Education related blogs today as I thought other teachers would find it of interest. You can see it here:

  5. Margaret: I didn’t know about that accreditation body! That’s amazing! Thanks for the link!

    Daniel: I wonder if more courses like that will be popping up? It seems to me as more and more job skills become more automated, there would have to be a shift to more critical thinking. Thanks very much for the link!

  6. Large companies with big projects are interfacing with education directly to get what they want (qualified employees) without bearing the cost of skill specific training. UCF/FIEA and Electronic Arts is a good example. Digital Domain (visual effects) is doing the same thing with FSU in west palm.

    As a former corporate trainer, certification has merits but won’t replace formal education in many instances. It will augment it. As a commenter alluded to, critical thinking skills are still more relevant that knowing buttons. Not just the “how”… but the “why”… The notion of Ad Hoc certifiers is a slippery slope… but certification from educational institutions when they are not constrained by accreditation issues for full degrees is a much wiser move… perhaps we are moving back to the Guild concept from whence colleges emerged…

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, Andrew. This sentence sums it up: “What we need is a more useful way of certifying a person’s knowledge, qualities and skills.” But we also need employers to accept alternative types of certifications.
    I agree that “The skills in the upcoming decades that will be most values will be critical thinking and creative problem solving.” And no degree can verify that.
    I’m a huge fan of the DIY Education movement, now happening across the world. People are clearly fed up with this ridiculous system. I was actually researching this very topic for a blog post and came across this amazing article on a DIY MFA program: I’ve often thought about starting my own ‘Freeskool’, because I believe in education for all, not just those that can afford it: Lastly, I haven’t read it, but DIY U’s Edupunk book has made a lot of headlines:
    Have you seen what ODesk ( does? Employers post mini-jobs on the board, and ODesk has built in certification tests. Before someone can apply to that posting, they have to be certified in that topic- for free through ODesk. This might be something to build off of.

    • I had not seen ODesk. That is very cool, thanks so much for passing that great info along! 🙂

  8. […] Using Certifications to Replace Degrees […]

  9. […] Using Certifications to Replace Degrees – a look at how Microsoft’s MCSE certificate might shake up the international qualifications market place. […]

  10. […] comment on a blogpost by Andrew Barras at Education Stormfront One way, atleast in California, that the critical need by employers for new tech competent people […]

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