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If B.A.’s Can’t Lead Graduates to Jobs, Can Badges Do the Trick?

March 2, 2015 By Goldie Blumenstyk

Employers say they are sick of encountering new college graduates who lack job skills. And colleges are sick of hearing that their young alumni aren’t employable.

Could a new experiment to design employer-approved "badges" leave everyone a little less frustrated?

Employers and a diverse set of more than a half-dozen universities in the Washington area are about to find out, through a project that they hope will become a national model for workplace badges.

The effort builds on the burgeoning national movement for badges and other forms of "micro­credentials." It also pricks at much broader questions about the purpose and value of a college degree in an era when nearly nine out of 10 students say their top reason for going to college is to get a good job.

The "21st Century Skills Badging Challenge" kicks off with a meeting on Thursday. For the next nine months, teams from the universities, along with employers and outside experts, will try to pinpoint the elements that underlie skills like leadership, effective storytelling, and the entrepreneurial mind-set. They’ll then try to find ways to assess students’ proficiency in those elements and identify outside organizations to validate those skills with badges that carry weight with employers.

The badges are meant to incorporate the traits most sought by employers, often referred to as "the four C’s": critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration.

"We want this to become currency on the job market," says Kathleen deLaski, founder of the Education Design Lab, a nonprofit consulting organization that is coordinating the project.

No organizations have yet been selected or agreed to provide validations. But design-challenge participants say there’s a clear vision: Perhaps an organization like TED issues a badge in storytelling. Or a company like Pixar, or IDEO, the design and consulting firm, offers a badge in creativity.

If those badges gain national acceptance, Ms. deLaski says, they could bring more employment opportunities to students at non-elite colleges, which rarely attract the same attention from recruiters as the Ivies, other selective private colleges, or public flagships. "I’m most excited about it as an access tool," she says.

‘Celebrating’ and ‘Translating’

The very idea of badges may suggest that the college degree itself isn’t so valuable—at least not to employers.

Badge backers prefer a different perspective. They say there’s room for both badges and degrees. And if anything, the changing job market demands both.

Through their diplomas and transcripts, "students try to signal, and they have the means to signal, their academic accomplishments," says Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, which is involved in the project. "They just don’t have the same alternative for the other skills that employers say they want."

Nor is the badging effort a step toward vocationalizing the college degree, participants say. As Ms. deLaski puts it: "It’s celebrating what you learn in the academic setting and translating it for the work force."

Yet as she and others acknowledge, badges by themselves won’t necessarily satisfy employers who now think graduates don’t cut it.

That’s clear from how employer organizations that may work on the project regard badges. "We’re presuming that there is an additional skill set that needs to be taught," says Michael Caplin, president of the Tysons Partnership, a Northern Virginia economic-development organization. "It’s not just a packaging issue."

In other words, while a move toward badges could require colleges to rethink what they teach, it would certainly cause them to re-examine how they teach it. At least some university partners in the badging venture say they’re on board with that.

"Some of what we should be doing is reimagining some disciplinary content," says Randall Bass, vice provost for education at Georgetown University, another participant in the project.

Mr. Bass, who also oversees the "Designing the Future(s) of the University" project at Georgetown, says many smart curricular changes that are worth pursuing, no matter what, could also lend themselves to the goals of the badging effort. (At the master’s-degree level, for example, Georgetown has already begun offering a one-credit courses in grant writing.)

"We should make academic work more like work," with team-based approaches, peer learning, and iterative exercises, he says. "People would be ready for the work force as well as getting an engagement with intellectual ideas."

Employers’ gripes about recent college graduates are often hard to pin down. "It depends on who’s doing the whining," Mr. Bass quips. (The critique he does eventually summarize—that employers feel "they’re not getting students who are used to working"—is a common one.)

Where Graduates Fall Short

So one of the first challenges for the badging exercise is to better understand exactly what employers want and whether colleges are able to provide it—or whether they’re already doing so.

After all, notes Mr. Bass, many believe that colleges should produce job-ready graduates simply by teaching students to be agile thinkers who can adapt if their existing careers disappear. "That’s why I think ‘employers complain, dot dot dot,’ needs to be parsed," he says.

Mr. Caplin says his organization plans to poll its members to better understand where they see college graduates as falling short.

"From the students’ point of view, it must be disheartening to complete your higher education and be told you’re not employable," he says. "Having a B.A. is always a good thing. But it may not be sufficient to be hired."

The idea behind badges isn’t new to George Mason. Last year it undertook an experiment in which some students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus examination to see how employers regarded it. It wasn’t the right fit for the goal. The test is valuable, says Mr. Cabrera, the university’s president, "but it doesn’t signal any specific content."

Part of the challenge for the Design Lab and its partners, he notes, is to "create an ecosystem of players that can make it work." He notes that it will also be important to get faculty members on board. George Mason’s assessment experiment "didn’t interfere much with faculty life," he says. But for the badging to work, professors are "a key piece."

For the project to succeed, Ms. deLaski says, the badges need to be relevant to a wide audience. "It doesn’t do us much good to have ‘The George Mason Creativity Badge,’" she says. "To become currency, they have to be intercollegiate." One reason badges haven’t really taken off yet nationally, she notes, is that they’re often too parochial.

And there are other potential sticking points. Ms. deLaski wants the program to award badges for proficiency, not just participation. It also has to be interesting enough to attract students—not just when they’re about to start looking for jobs, but early in their college careers, while they still have time to acquire the skills they need to earn the badges.

Other institutions involved in the design challenge are Towson University, the University of Baltimore, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and the University of Maryland University College. The Universities at Shady Grove, a consortium of nine Maryland public universities, is also a partner. Each partner is expected to focus on developing a particular badge in collaboration with at least one local employer and about a dozen students.


Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter@GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.


Source: "If B.A.'s Can't Lead Graduates to Jobs, Can Badges Do the Trick?" - The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2015 (subscription required) 

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