On a drizzly and cold night in late December 1853, the citizens of Erie, Pennsylvania, led by the mayor, went on a rampage. They set fire to railway bridges, tore up tracks and rioted – all in an effort to stop the standardization of the railway track gauge in an event known as the Erie Gauge War. The economy of Erie had been enjoying robust growth due its location at the hub of three incompatible track gauges (ranging from 4 foot 10 inches to 6 feet wide), which forced passengers to change trains and freight to be unloaded and reloaded. Hotel and restaurant owners, as well as freight transfer agents, were enjoying the profits they earned from Erie’s status as an “enforced stopping place”. Sadly for the mayor and his cronies, the forces of economic progress prevailed, and both passenger and freight traffic found alternative, less disruptive routes, ultimately rendering Erie an economic also-ran.
In a somewhat perverse historical connection, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie grew ever wealthier as his mills produced more and more rails for the expanding railway industry. He didn’t much care what width the tracks were, just as long as they kept laying more miles of them. Fast forward to the turn of the century by which time Carnegie had sold his company to U.S. Steel for an amount equivalent to over $13 Billion in today’s dollars. He turned his attention to philanthropy in the fields of education and the arts. The foundation that bears his name went on to create an educational standard that ironically lives on to this day – the Carnegie unit. The original intention of the Carnegie unit was simply to have a common benchmark for calculating the workload of faculty for tracking their pension funds. The standard Carnegie unit is defined as 120 hours of contact time with an instructor, but it has evolved over the past century into the default method of measuring competency and mastery of a subject. Clearly, not all students learn to master any given subject in exactly 120 hours, but no other standard has yet emerged to take its place. Yet it remains to this day as the “standard gauge” of all students’ learning.
In the meantime, corporations seeking hard to find skilled workers have found creative ways to bypass the credentialing quagmire that the higher-ed system is still bogged down in. Hiring managers in technical fields are routinely bypassing the conventional resume/college recruiting route and going directly to developer forums such as GitHub and StackOverflow to seek out the candidates for hard to fill positions. Corporate HR departments are increasingly borrowing from supply chain management practices, as they look to custom-engineer their “suppliers” of people. Some experts are even predicting that companies will gradually create their own education systems (“training & development departments” redux?)
An approach beginning to take hold is the pathway to customized degree programs. Think about the following job descriptions that global corporations are seeking to fill: “Cyber-security Intelligence Professional”, “Crop Data Analytics Specialist”, “Digital Media Strategist” and “Autonomous Driving Vehicle Technical Lead”. And ask yourself how long it will be before the higher education accreditation cartel (as it’s been referred to by at least one presidential candidate) completes its due process of allowing degrees to be awarded for courses of study in these fields.
The accreditation agencies and their ilk are in danger of becoming the modern equivalent of the Erie, Pennsylvania freight workers. They both benefited by creating a choke point and using their position of authority to extract extreme economic rents. (Colleges spend millions obtaining and renewing their accreditations.) The underlying factor in this academic arms race is the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal student financial aid programs. Academic institutions will spend whatever is necessary to maintain eligibility for Title IV lending, since these administrative costs are simply passed on to students in the form of higher tuition fees. (Which, of course, the government continues to finance through its loan programs.) To draw from another sector of the economy which experienced some financial upheaval in the last few years, it’s as if the fees charged by home inspectors could be rolled into the mortgage on the property. Prospective home buyers seeking a mortgage would have no choice but to pay ever increasing inspection fees, but would tolerate the higher expenses since they’d be tax deductible.
Like the passengers and shippers who found alternatives to the inconvenience of the Erie hub, a similar trend is taking place in today’s fast-paced global economy. Rather than patiently wait while the academic world continues its navel-gazing exercises, companies and innovators are laying new tracks – in this case career and skill based paths – that get them where they need to go efficiently.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are now being “stacked” into “Nanodegrees” from Udacity and “Specializations” from Coursera, which demonstrate expertise in a given field. Coding bootcamps and vendor-specific certification bodies are beginning to issue a new breed of credential such as the “MicroDegree” and the “Double-Click Degree”. The former is a digital credential certifying that the holder has completed a minimum of 1,000 MicroCredits in a designated professional discipline. The latter, as Ryan Craig puts it in his book, “College Disrupted”, is “a way station on the road to the unbundling of the college degree”. As these forms of competency verification become more broadly recognized by hiring managers, those holding such alternative and emerging credentials will have a better chance of competing on a level playing field.
Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation recently quipped, “No one really likes accreditation, but no one knows what else to do”. Perhaps the leaders of the accrediting bodies should discuss some alternatives during their next annual convention. They should hold it in the hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania, next door to the Railway Museum. There’s plenty of vacancies.