Badges are gaining currency at the same time that a growing number of elite universities have begun offering free or low-cost, noncredit courses to anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to learn. Millions of students have already signed up for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. By developing information-age credentials backed by a wide array of organizations outside the education system, creators of badge programs may be mounting the first serious competition to traditional degrees since college-going became the norm.
If digital badges infiltrate the credential market, they could shake the economic foundations of a higher education industry that over the last 30 years has consistently increased prices much higher than inflation and family income, resulting in over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. Colleges have gotten away with this in large part because the gap in earnings between people with and without degrees significantly widened during that time. Degree holders were less likely to lose their jobs during the recent recession, and the number of jobs requiring degrees grew faster during the recovery. Degrees are valuable, and only colleges can sell them. So students and parents pay and, increasingly, borrow, because they feel they have no choice.
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