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Can lifelong learning compete with an alma mater’s logo?

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Thomas Leuthard

Our way past the skills gap and student loan crisis is through a better way to empower and recognize expertise.

If you ask someone about their education, chances are they will tell you about their formal education—high school, university or an advanced degree. But formal learning only represents a small fraction of our total education.

What about the universal skills and experiences we gain on the job, the articles and videos we consume daily, the books we read, the experts we learn from, and everything else we do to gain expertise?

All learning and all skills should be measurable and communicable.

Our way past the skills gap and the increasingly desperate student debt problem needs to be more comprehensive than current initiatives to update university curriculums, increase enrollment in community college, and forgive student loans.

We need to empower and reward learning, recognize the universal skills people have, and create a more open system of representation for people to display their earned expertise – one that goes beyond a traditional college degree.

Aside from the social benefits, college serves two main purposes. The first purpose is to gain the knowledge and universal skills that will serve as a foundation to a person’s life. The second is to signal something to the job market about a person’s expertise.

That signal is becoming a bigger part of the equation of why people are willing to pay so much for a university education. So goes the adage: “the hardest thing you will ever do at Harvard is get in.”

For most hiring managers, majors, grades, and Grade Point Average (GPAs) are often of little consideration. Without other trusted signals behind candidates, a school’s brand becomes the strongest heuristic available. But should it be this way?

Behind a school’s brand, the GPA is the next most important signal. What makes the GPA so strong as a signaling tool is also its greatest weakness?

I can tell you I got an “A” or a “3.9” and there is a high likelihood that you will have strong context for what that means. But the GPA was developed as an internal rubric to better rank and score a set cohort of students, a job which the GPA has done fairly well.

The GPA has not, however, evolved so well in its newfound role – that of a signal of aptitude to potential employers.

Degrees are also problematic. They are still considered one of life’s greatest achievements. Like money, a degree is hard to earn, and its value persists throughout life, even superseding all the learning that happens in the decades after that degree is earned.

To most hiring managers, what really matters are the universal skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has

And that’s the rub. While the college degree strives to represent in a single title the major part of a person’s lifelong education, it doesn’t begin to quantify everything today’s learners are doing – or what their future potential might be.

Companies like Google, consistently ranked among the top places to work, have all but abandoned the college degree as a useful signal in the hiring process.

People can now gain expertise largely through self-directed learning, and companies are starting to focus on enabling employee-driven learning.

Professional certifications are another tool, but have meaningful limitations. There is an alphabet-soup of professional certificates like CPA or CNA, company or product-specific certifications like Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), and role or job aligned credentials like PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® and Six Sigma Black Belt.

While vertically strong, they are weak when looked at more broadly. Certificates require you to pay for specific content, take specific courses and pass specific assessments, which is helpful within a very narrow context but it’s extremely challenging for anyone outside the category to quantify or compare against like certificates.

Which is better, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), or the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification, and what does each really signify?

To most hiring managers, what really matters are the universal skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has, regardless of where and how they were gained.

Today, we only have crude proxies for aptitude in these areas in the form of university and employer pedigree and candidate references. Unfortunately, racial, age and gender biases often skew those. That’s why we turn to our own networks to hire whenever we can.

What we need instead are tools that can measure these inputs agnostically, augmenting irreplaceable human judgment with systematic rubrics to rank individuals according to their skills, achievements, and potential.

We need to provide people with the tools they need to signal to the market what they can do and how they compare to others – not just a pedigree of logos and job titles.