It is that time of year when higher education recognizes accomplishment through the awarding of degrees and commencement celebrations. That has me thinking about what it means to be educated and/or to earn a credential. Earlier this year, Ithaka S+R released a report entitled Higher Ed Insights: Results of the Fall 2015 Survey. That report highlighted a potential tension between two approaches to improving rates of degree completion: 1) guided pathways; and 2) unbundling college credits and services. The report suggests that developing a better understanding of this tension merits deeper scrutiny, since it would appear that one approach succeeds by restricting student choice (pathways) while the other sets out to expand student choice (unbundling). I agree that this question should be given more careful thought, although I suppose it is entirely possible and perhaps even likely that both approaches are warranted, since different students require different approaches. To my mind, though, this question also highlights another really important question about the student experience. Are students going to college to earn a degree or to get educated?

Degree or education: this is one of those binary questions that you may not find useful – of course students go to college to get both. That interdependency is one of the factors that shapes the way many of our higher education institutions operate today. Perhaps it always will. But I hope that you will indulge me in a thought exercise for a few moments to wonder what would happen if these two responsibilities of a college or university – credentialing on the one hand and education on the other – were separable. I wrote about this topic about a year ago when I wondered about the term “competency based education.”

The point I was trying to make there, and that I want to explore further here, is that credentialing and education are both extremely important, but they are not the same thing, and the relationship between them is not static. The nature of credentials and the skills and perspective one receives through education are both changing, as is the relative value of one to the other. This is true in the sense that different kinds of institutions are trying to deliver new kinds of credentials (College for America), just as new kinds of companies are providing new forms of education (General Assembly).

So let’s define the terms briefly. Let’s define education as the difference between the knowledge you arrive at an institution possessing and the new knowledge you have acquired by the time you leave. It is the delta, the change in what you know, that is your education. And let’s define the credential as a label that asserts you possess a certain level of knowledge. It doesn’t matter how you acquired that knowledge or when you acquired it, just that you have it.

Is one of these, the credential or the education, more valuable than the other? Is that relative value changing? One of the most valuable aspects of the credential is that it helps with selection. Employers and graduate schools can rely on the credential, and what goes into it, to help reduce their costs of finding the best people. This remains an extremely important and valuable function and the market will continue to demand it.

At the same time, however, many businesses and graduate schools are increasingly discovering that students do not possess the necessary knowledge to complete the work they were selected to do without additional training.  In that sense, the education may be falling short of the credential.

In a time when there are increasing amounts of data available to measure nearly everything, it is worth noting that higher education does not generally measure “education.”  We don’t measure overall what people learn during their time in college, and generally speaking, the more we emphasize selectivity as a measure of quality, the less education needs to be delivered for a college to be successful at placing students in jobs or schools. Put another way, we don’t generally celebrate higher education institutions that are able to receive relatively unprepared students and graduate them ready to contribute successfully in the world. We don’t celebrate the delta.

What remains to be seen in today’s rapidly changing economy and society is whether your success in the future will be determined more by whether you have been well-educated or if you have a credential from a place that indicates you are well educated. History seems to have favored the latter. The increase in digital surrogates of our work, connected by the network, combined with more of a gig-based and do-it-yourself economy, may increasingly favor what you know and the actual work you have done, rather than where you may have done it.  If that is true, institutions of “higher creducation” will need to become better at education.