Why Certifiers Should be Tracking the Education Hacking Trend

By Lenora G. Knapp, PhD, president of Knapp & Associates International; and Stephen Horan, PhD, CFA, CIPM, CAIA, managing director, Credentialing CFA Institute 

“Education hacking” refers to the process of designing one’s own education to increase the return on investment. Education hackers seek to lower the cost of education while optimizing its effectiveness in preparing them for the workplace and their careers. Some hackers forgo traditional degrees altogether and instead curate a variety of learning experiences to accomplish their goals.   

What Sparked the Education Hacking Trend? 

The cost of tuition and fees for a college education increased more than 400 percent from 1990 through 2018, while wages for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher increased only 100 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). A steadily increasing wage advantage of a college degree over a high school diploma has done little to mitigate concerns about skyrocketing tuition. The cost of post-secondary education and doubts about how effectively students are prepared for the workforce have led Gen Z and young millennials to question the value of a college degree. 

The think tank, New America, estimated that the average student in the United States (US) has a median debt of $57,600 from a combination of undergraduate and graduate studies. Approximately one-third of college graduates in the US and the United Kingdom (UK) regret going to college because of overwhelming debt. To address this problem, new educational programs, such as Lambda School and coding boot camps will not collect tuition and fees until after a learner has obtained a job. These programs – which serve to innovate and ‘disrupt’ from the norm – offer new financing solutions through which students can give up a portion of their future earnings for a limited period of time, rather than taking on debt. 

College students and graduates also express concerns about how well college prepares them for the workplace. Only a minority (38 percent) of US college students think their education is preparing them well for work and nearly half of university-educated millennials in the UK believe they would have reached the same level in their careers if they had not gone to university. Globally, 62 percent of Gen Z are open to the idea of joining the workforce instead of pursuing a post-secondary degree. 

The think tank, New America, estimated that the average student in the United States has a median debt of $57,600 from a combination of undergraduate and graduate studies.

Cost concerns and doubts about the value of a degree, in tandem with the availability of low cost, high-quality online learning opportunities, have been the impetus for students to “hack” their education, with the goal of obtaining work-related knowledge and skills in the shortest time and for the least amount of money. A traditional hack has been to begin post-secondary education at a low-cost community college and then transfer to finish this education (at either the undergraduate or graduate level) at an institution with greater brand recognition. Today, education hackers who desire a college degree have more options. They might:

  • study for and then take College Level Examination Program and DSST exams to obtain college credits at a lower cost than tuition fees;
  • pursue additional low-cost credits through prior learning assessment portfolios, which document learning that has taken place outside of post-secondary education; and
  • select the most cost-effective academic institutions from which to obtain remaining credits through coursework and receive a degree (e.g., online universities which have subscription-based tuition). 

Many options also are available for those who do not seek degrees. For example, these individuals might construct a learning program consisting of one or more of the following components:

  • completing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and credentials from highly respected universities and companies;
  • seeking out a mentor;
  • engaging in peer-to-peer learning through local meetups and online groups; and/or
  • participating in boot camps or apprenticeships. 

Saving time and money are not the only reasons students hack their education. A significant advantage is that it allows students to take their education into their own hands, giving them the opportunity to create a personalized learning program that best suits their needs and preferences. 

Why Does This Matter?

In many fields, there is no longer one “right” or “best” path for career progression, and the same may soon be true of post-secondary education. Opportunities to acquire work-related competencies through means other than attending college are expanding. Praxis and UnCollege are two examples of organizations that have created structured, yet personalized programs that provide such opportunities. These are apprenticeship-type programs that integrate work experience with a structured learning process. 

Globally, governments are increasingly subsidizing this kind of learning. Germany has long been known for its apprenticeship model. The UK recently introduced employer-developed apprenticeships for high school graduates which are funded through a levy on the employers who create these opportunities. Consistent with other types of apprenticeships, at least 20 percent of the time must be spent on learning. Similarly, Singapore is developing a subsidized skills framework and associated learning programs linked to practical experience. 

Opportunities to acquire work-related competencies through means other than attending college are expanding.

As more employers hire workers without traditional post-secondary education and observe the skill sets of these individuals, their insistence on traditional degrees as a hiring requirement may diminish. Even now, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that higher-education institutions are effectively preparing students for work. 

Many certification programs require post-secondary degrees, and it is common for certifiers to accept degrees unrelated or indirectly related to the scope of practice being certified. In many instances, the rationales for this practice may be debatable even today, but will be more likely to raise questions of fairness as more people enter the workplace with the skills requisite to competence but without a post-secondary degree. If certifiers believe that some confirmation of knowledge and skills must precede their own assessments, it may be advisable to explore how to do this without using a degree as a proxy. Requiring successful completion of an apprenticeship, boot camp, or other immersive learning program could be reasonable alternatives. 

Since the early 2000s, CFA Institute has accepted in fulfillment of its entrance eligibility requirements, either a bachelor’s degree (completed or in the final year of study), four years’ work experience, or a combination of higher education and work experience totaling four years. While the majority of candidates still enter via the degree path, a growing number are applying work experience toward their requirement.

Recently, CFA Institute began recognizing participation in the UK apprenticeship program mentioned above as a degree equivalent. The CFA Program, in turn, plays two roles in the apprenticeship. Firstly, the CFA Program counts toward fulfillment of the UK requirement that 20% of the work hours for the apprenticeship are spent in learning. Secondly, the CFA Program is a recognized qualification required for successful completion of the apprenticeship. 

Developing relationships with and providing support to education hackers may prove advantageous to certifiers since they have potential as a new target audience for some credentials. In fact, education hackers may be even more inclined to pursue certification than those who follow a traditional path, because the certification provides external validation that their “hacked” education was effective. Certifiers can assist education hackers by offering resources that help them acquire necessary knowledge and skills. Such resources might include competency frameworks, self-assessments which enable hackers to identify gaps to be addressed in their learning program, mentorship from certificants and assessment-based certificate programs which provide both learning and a credential in a single package.

A Certification Executive’s Insights on Planning for the Future

Re-imagining your certification program is a challenging journey. Mapping the route in advance is critical for success. Following are steps critical to the journey:


  1. Establish a motivation. Few certification programs are under obvious and imminent threat. The pace of change is accelerating, however, and most programs change slowly. A leader must create an impetus with a narrative grounded in the history of the program and the reality of contemporary trends so the team feels a need to change.


2. Establish a disruptive thinking framework. Re-imaging a certification  program is not a reflexive impulse. Providing a framework not only helps your team understand the hidden threats to and vulnerabilities of the existing program, but also provides creative inspiration about how to respond to them that helps overcome inertia.


3.       Identify structural shifts. The need for change must be placed in the context of societal shifts, credentialing trends, and advances in the subject matter domain area. If the disruptive thinking framework is the skeleton, these structural shifts are the flesh that give shape and form to a future vision.


4.       Create a roadmap. Visions without roadmaps are wishful thinking. Creating a series of incremental milestones and smaller changes that enable a bolder vision to be realized provides nearer-term, more attainable goals around which a team can rally.


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