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Lately, reading about all the variations on what constitutes a university degree and how is should be evaluated, accredited and valued just makes me more and more frustrated. Every day seems to bring another ranking, another rating, another study, another debate, another controversy.  Should for-profit providers be evaluated in the same way as non-profits? Can a MOOC be the equivalent of a class taught with everyone in the same physical space?  Enough already!

We are asking a university degree to be too many things to too many people. Maybe a rose by any other name will not smell quite as sweet after all. Or maybe it’s just that different roses smell different and it’s time for us to be more specific about the rose.

Once upon a time, a university education was pretty simple to describe — a fixed number of years of study provided by a cadre of scholars.  The earliest degrees prepared the clergy and also inculcated a certain level of “culture” for children of the social elite.  Over time, universities began to prepare citizens (almost always men) for specific purposes, either to assume a role in government bureaucracies or in professions such as medicine and law.  During the 20th century the number of universities grew steadily, at the same time broadening access to and the purpose of higher education. Still, the model remained much the same as it had during previous centuries, a fixed number of years of study under the tutelage of scholars leading to a credential that represented a level of education that, despite a certain degree of variation, was more or less widely understood and recognized. 

By the beginning of the 21st century the meaning and value of a university degree had become increasingly difficult to define. The massification of enrollments worldwide along with the extraordinary diversity of providers alone would have created considerable ambiguity about the level and worth of a university degree.  Add to this the growing tendency to judge tertiary education by post-graduate employment statistics and the purpose and worth of a university degree is skewed further. 

To complicate this still further, we are searching for a shared understanding of higher education across borders, traditions and cultures.  We live in a globally mobile world where graduates of Italian universities need to equate their degree to degrees awarded by Danish universities and graduates of Danish universities may need to equate their degrees to those awarded by Korean universities.  Would an expanded Bologna Process be enough to give everyone the information that they need?  Add technology to the mix and it becomes necessary to equate education experienced in a completely different way to the shared understanding of the significance and value of a university degree. 

Returning to my already stretched metaphor — I think we are trying to find a way to make orchids, peonies, lavender and lilacs all smell like a rose.  Isn’t it time to find new metrics for higher education that will be more useful to the diverse stakeholders who are trying to make sense of the enterprise?

Perhaps it is time to create something along the lines of a bitcoin for higher education, a new international currency with different denominations that will be tied to different kinds of study.  So for example, perhaps someone could acquire one kind of currency through traditional study in a classroom earning a particular “bitcoin”; let’s call these bitcoins, socratecoins.  Then, another denomination for practical work such as internships, called practicoins; another for international study called globacoins; another for research called nobelacoins; perhaps one for study at for-profits called apollocoin and another for online study called moocoins.  This system probably needs a little fine tuning but the idea is to present a degree portfolio that clearly distinguishes its components.  This would provide graduate schools, employers, and others much more useful information about an individual’s education than a degree earned with a date.  I’ll have to ruminate a bit on the challenge of quality assurance or perhaps the international market will solve that as the coins rise and fall in value.  

It’s time to stop beating the university degree to death for all of its limitations and move on to a new way to document postsecondary achievement that reflects today’s realities and options.  So if someone wants to take this idea further, please let me know.  And I want some intellectual property rights!


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