Debt isn’t just a burden for older adults anymore. Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that America’s total student loan debt has reached an all-time high of more than $1 trillion, surpassing the nation’s credit card debt, and comprising more than 6 percent of the US gross domestic product. With nearly 50 million Americans carrying student loan debt (equal to the number collecting Social Security), the high cost of higher education touches most US households.
Yet, for some, entrance to college, once a near-guaranteed ticket to upward social mobility and elite career opportunities, has become a pathway to prolonged financial distress. For instance, a typical 2010 college graduate collected a diploma alongside more than $25,000 in debt and entered one of the most dismal job markets in recent history.
As college administrators, we’re not blind to the crisis of higher education costs. That’s why a number of higher learning institutions are experimenting with programs that will alleviate some of these concerns while still providing a degree that allows recipients to achieve professional-level competency. For example, Wesleyan University and Mary Baldwin College have pioneered programs that condense the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree into three years, but still require 120 credits. Elsewhere, schools are attempting massively open online courses (MOOCs), competency-based education programs and the growth of sub-baccalaureate certificates to emphasis what students learn rather than how they learn it.
While such intentions are admirable, squeezing four years of credits into a three and taking classes with thousands of students does not work for everyone. At the same time, recent budget cuts for community colleges have made shorter and less expensive higher education alternatives increasingly rare. These difficulties, combined with the past decade’s new, advanced instructional technologies, make this an ideal time to look at new forms of credentialing in an evolutionary manner.