In all the discussions of college quality and affordability, the issue lurking just in the background is the persistent disconnect between formal higher education and the skills actually needed in the workplace. This longstanding problem makes the real-life value of higher education harder to establish as costs escalate, even as the “credentialism” associated with formal educational requirements for employment or advancement remains a bar to talented and hard-working people and a potential drag on the economy.

That’s why there is persistent interest from both businesses and policymakers in alternative methods of certifying skills, a subject addressed comprehensively by Anne Kim in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly.

Alternative certification opportunities range widely, notes Kim, from “badges” for easily demonstrable technical skills like web design, to the National Manufacturing Institute’s “stackable credentials” for core and advanced workplace skills, to programs formed through industry and company partnerships with community and four-year colleges. The key to their growth is the development of broadly accepted standards that make skills credentials as portable–and expandable–as higher education credentials like degrees. But as Kim notes, this trend could represent an existential threat to traditional higher ed institutions that don’t adapt.

Difficult as this process could well be, the potential benefits of skills-based education and training are enormous, not only for the economy but in terms of allowing Americans to customize their learning to accommodate the lives they actually live:

The prototype of this future student might be forty-six-year-old Joe Weischedel. As a professional truck driver, Weischedel spent two decades hauling everything from produce to chemicals up and down the East Coast and across the country. On his longest hauls, he’s spent as much as four weeks away from home. After stints in community college as well as Temple University in Philadelphia, Weischedel joined the Army for four years and served as a combat medic. Around 2000, he tried college again with a few online classes at the University of Maryland and the University of Phoenix but ended up dropping out.

In 2010, he resumed the college education he had abandoned years earlier and enrolled online at [The American Public University]. After receiving college credit for the skills he picked up in the military, it took him two years to earn his degree, taking two classes at a time and studying (while sometimes attending classes online) in hotel rooms on the road. This summer, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in transportation and logistics management. He also earned a professional certification from the American Society of Transportation and Logistics.

Today, Weischedel is looking at senior logistics management jobs that could quadruple his current salary driving trucks. “I had the practical experience, but I didn’t have the paper,” he said. “There was a ceiling before, but now I’ve broken through.”

That’s supposedly what opportunity is all about in America.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.