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Rethink Your Credentials in 2017


In more than twenty years of working since I graduated from college, not once has any employer or prospective employer asked for either piece of paper to prove the education credentials I list on my résumé or LinkedIn profile. Yet the diploma and the transcript are the two assets that so many of us pay so much for as an admission ticket to the working world.


But the days when a college diploma is the only signal that someone is ready for the workforce are quickly coming to an end. While a college degree is still the strongest signal of discipline for employers—that an applicant was able to finish something he started—there is a lot more noise around the signal than ever before.


That’s especially true when it comes to the so-called soft skills—a term associated with how people get along with one another, communicate, problem solve, think critically, and work in teams. As I reported my new book about how today’s college graduates can navigate the job market, I found that employers no longer trust that soft skills are embedded in the college degree. That’s the skills gap they most want to fill.


In recent years, an array of new credentials have emerged—from badges to extended transcripts to certificates from boot camps—that threaten to break the monopoly of the big three diploma options: the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees.


2017 will only accelerate that trend. We won’t see the disappearance of college degrees, at least at the undergraduate level, any time soon. But we’ll see more campuses follow the lead of places like Lipscomb University in Nashville, where students can earn endorsed badges for skills and competencies such as written communication and presentation skills or a dozen colleges and universities that are experimenting with “extended transcripts,” which describe learning outside the classroom in extra-curricular activities or internships.


Such proof of learning beyond the traditional degree is nothing new, of course. Certain jobs have long required industry certifications, like those in the tech field. What’s now new is that these credentials are extending beyond those legacy industries, and often they are digital assets that can easily be shared with employers, verified, and even be connected to a portfolio of projects.


What’s more, digital credentials can easily be searched, allowing employers looking for specific skills to seek out prospective employees based on a set of competencies, instead of waiting and hoping for the right résumé to land on their desk. Such a development has the potential to upend the war for talent.


Whether or not 2017 is the year that these credentials take off is largely in the hands of employers who like to complain about the value of the traditional college degree, but don’t yet trust a system of badges and certifications that is largely unregulated.


But as the cost of higher education continues to rise and as the global information economy requires more people to acquire training throughout their lifetimes, it’s only a matter of time before a verified and trusted system of richer credentials that sit on top of traditional degrees begins to be accepted by employers.

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