Changing the System, By Degrees

Looking back at one of his first jobs, Peter Drucker recounted how societal expectations were different in the late 1920s. “When I started work as an apprentice clerk in an export firm . . . I was considered distinctly ‘overeducated,’” Drucker recalled in The Age of Discontinuity. “I had finished secondary school, and no apprentice before me, including the owners of the firm and their sons, had entered work that late.”

Photo credit: James Almond

Today, a college degree plays the role once occupied by the high school degree, and thousands of young people saddle themselves with heavy debt in order to acquire it. Many Americans feel the trend has gone too far and want to stop it. That’s why the Mozilla Foundation (the group behind Firefox), among others, is looking for ways to offer alternatives to old-fashioned diplomas.

One of these involves issuing digital “badges” to people who acquire and can demonstrate competence in some specific set of skills.  “Like Boy Scout merit badges for professionals, these marks of achievement would show competence in specific skills, and they could be granted by any number of institutions,” The Wall Street Journal explained in a recent piece. “This is the vision of a growing number of education reformers who feel that the standard certification system no longer works in today’s fast-changing job market.” [EXPAND More]

Whether this effort will work or not, the thoughts behind it are certainly Druckerian. Drucker detested what he called the “diploma curtain” and feared its harm to non-degreed Americans. “Limiting access to opportunity to those with a diploma is a crass denial of all fundamental American beliefs,” Drucker wrote, adding that he expected states would eventually forbid employers from asking applicants about their educational status. “I, for one, shall vote for this proposal if I can.”

Forget diplomas, Drucker said. Start thinking more flexibly. “Employers, and especially large companies, need to look in their work force for the people of proven performance and willingness to achieve, though they lack the formal requirements,” Drucker asserted. “The schools will also have to develop an ‘earned degree’ for those who have proved their ability in performance even though they lack the hours on the school bench and the credits for courses that would have entitled them to a normal diploma.”

What do you think: Is the “diploma curtain” here to stay? Or can a new approach work? [/EXPAND]