It’s time for our country to reckon with itself on the deeply held value of education. Is it education that we value? Or is it the credential that results from certain types of education? We have lived in a society that has emphasized the importance of education from the very beginning. Benjamin Franklin once said “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” A similar refrain has been made by nearly every American leader since and reflected by generations of Americans at dinner tables across the country. On the surface, there’s nothing to argue about. Education, broadly defined, is among the most worthy goals of any democratic society. But lurking beneath the surface is a real crisis of conscience for our education system as to whether it values education and learning or simply the credentials that accrue from it. At the core of this are colleges and degrees.
Colleges and universities do indeed suggest they value education; for example, ‘lifelong learning’ is one of the most common phrases in college mission statements. But they don’t reward lifelong learning in any way. They only reward the learning that comes in the form of degrees – 2-year, 4-year and post-graduate. They don’t provide recognition and credentialing for just one year of college nor – for those pursuing bachelor’s degrees – for two or even three years of education. Aside from a vaguely defined movement on the part of some colleges to offer “certificate” programs, there isn’t much that structures alumni lifelong learning in a formal way either. In reality, lifelong learning is more a myth than an outcome that has been achieved.
For the past several decades, champions of education have run well-meaning campaigns to improve college attainment by setting degree completion goals at both the federal and state level. Amidst the push for college attainment goals, there have also been a number of unintended consequences and negative externalities. Namely, we have greatly devalued the vocational training that has long been a staple of American education. Career and technical training in American schools has greatly receded. Worse, we have created a judgmental attitude about career and technical education – treating it as a ‘second choice’ alternative to college. Have college completion campaigns truly encouraged a spirit of learning and a ‘learn ethic’ among Americans? Or have we conflated education with degrees to an extent that a degree is the only ‘acceptable’ form of education?

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