Image via @HakanBoston

Several employers would agree the country’s colleges aren’t properly preparing students. Ask those same business leaders what matters more, knowledge or a degree, and they’ll likely say they hire for experience over pedigree.

Will competency trump a degree?

The question was a central point of discussion at LearnLaunch’s second annual ed-tech conference, and four panelists took to tackling the topic Friday night: Deb Bushway, vice president of Capella University; Kris Clerkin, executive director of the College for America at Southern New Hampshire University; Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly; and Shaun Johnson, co-founder of the Startup Institute.

The breakout session, moderated by Jason Palmer, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, zeroed in on competency-based learning — education designed to provide students with the skills necessary to succeed in today’s workforce.

“Competency is the common language between education and employment,” defined Clerkin, adding that competency is about discovering, “What can people do with what they know?”

The problem, however, is that, up to this point, what people “know” has been defined by the college degree listed on their résumé.

For several fields, that has started to change. If an employer wants to know whether an aspiring Web developer is exceptional at coding, they can take inventory of his or her GitHub account. For writers, a boss can demand to see published clips. As Palmer noted on Friday, that “evidence of learning is easier to review in other professions.”

But what’s the rest of the workforce to do?

Programs like the locally-founded Startup Institute work because students are placed directly in front of employers after their eight-week immersion into the startup ecosystem. What’s more, throughout the practitioner-led program, participants are taught by those same employers, who come in from a day out in the field to work with the students hands-on. By the end, students are pitching to a room full of those looking to hire, emerging with the skills necessary to make an immediate impact at a startup.

The process has worked: Nine out of 10 Startup Institute graduates have a full-time job within three months of leaving the program.

If there’s no one there to facilitate the conversation between employers and students sprung from a more nontraditional program, though, is that success as obtainable?

The average student loan debt is now ringing in at $29,400. That said, college graduates reportedly earn 84 percent more over their lifetimes that those without a degree — a statistic that’s kept students enrolling in traditional, four-year programs. The costly credential “proves” an individual has been validated and certified. The piece of paper symbolizes they’ve learned something, even if all they learned is how to masterfully memorize enough material to the extent they could fall asleep in the back of a classroom and still pass the final exam.

If more employers started validating the alternatives out there, the landscape could start evolving at a faster pace. Not only do students want to be hirable, they want to reduce their costs. In a separate LearnLaunch panel, Peter Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning, said he’s heard students say, “I was taking this course at my school, and then I watched the MOOC equivalent off of edX, and it was so much better than how my professor was doing it.”

Until a certificate from massive open online learning platform edX is given the same weight by employers as a degree from Harvard, students won’t stop attending the Ivy League institute. Although, as Bushway said, “Elite brands are always going to be in strong demand.”

Luckily, panelists were optimistic about the future.

“The Obama administration has been open to new ideas,” Clerkin said. And, indeed, Southern New Hampshire University has been lauded by the president in the past. Clerkin added, though, that there’s a need for every institution to continuously upgrade. “I think the colleges need to adapt. Many schools will not survive because they can’t innovate.”

What will survive, however, are programs like the Startup Institute that are providing the skills companies are saying they need. Now, other employers, like those partnered with the program, need to start following hiring suit.

“I think the priorities are starting to shift,” Johnson said.

For innovation’s sake, let’s hope so.