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In Search of a Better Diploma

Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, has some ideas for revitalizing the college diploma. And many of those ideas are very good. While the cost of the college diploma is increasing, Hoffman notes in his TNR article that its necessity for vocational competition is also growing:

If you don’t have a diploma, you don’t get an interview. According to the New York Times, even employers looking for receptionists and file clerks require a bachelor’s degree these days. “When you get 800 résumés for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow,” an executive recruiter told the newspaper. So a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs. But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12thcentury.

Hoffman calls for a “21st century diploma”: one that conveys skills in a more holistic manner, that can be updated over time, that functions as an online networking database (much like LinkedIn), and that reflects the practical skillsets obtained by students. It should be less ambiguous and more specific, less packaged and more “modularized” (allowing students to pursue specific classes rather than encompassing a swath of “general education” classes). “Over time,” he writes, “this dynamic, networked diploma will contain an increasing number of icons or badges symbolizing specific certifications. It could also link to transcripts, test scores, and work examples from these curricula, and even evaluations from instructors, classmates, internship supervisors, and others who have interacted with you in your educational pursuits.”

Hoffman is right: there are many problems with the old-fashioned degree in modern higher education. All too often, it doesn’t emphasize “real world” job skills or experience. It is often ambiguous and terribly expensive. The fact that employers use it as a job screening mechanism puts many competent individuals at an unjust disadvantage.

The proposed online, modular degree would enable people to continue enhancing skill sets applicable to their major. It would help those without financial means to slowly develop a degree over time, without suffering a barrage of student debt. It could even offer promise for older individuals who find themselves unemployed and in need of a degree.

But some of Hoffman’s suggestions seemed to call for greater caution or comment. For instance, though a modular degree could be useful on some occasions, “the bundle” degree is not altogether bad. Although not necessary for every degree, “bundling” allows a student to build rapport, cultivate a vocational network, and develop proficiency within a specific skill set. For at least some degrees, this is still useful.) In addition, Hoffman’s plan seems less supportive of qualitative skills and majors. The diploma system should not punish such students for developing different proficiencies with less “real-world” applicability. The old universities, with their brand name-impact and renowned rigor, do help such students develop rapport. But not everyone can afford or obtain admission to such schools.

Both a benefit and detriment to Hoffman’s 21st century diploma is its focus on churning out jobs. This is vital, in many ways, for our current economic situation. People need jobs. And they need whatever certification or degree necessary to procure those jobs. But there is an older, classical understanding of learning as love – learning for its own sake, as its own inherent good – that shouldn’t be lost with the sheepskin. This idea links, perhaps, to the humanities debate that has ebbed and flowed throughout the summer: the question of whether we ought to study the impractical. Unfortunately, “impractical” degrees would probably appear somewhat flimsy and insubstantial if uploaded to a LinkedIn profile. But learning-as-love contains something essential for our culture and economic flourishing as a whole.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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