I remember very clearly sitting in an upper level polysci class as a senior. The professor proudly told us that we would forget 95 percent of the information he would teach us over the semester, and the other 5 percent would not be useful in whatever job we happened to get after college.
The professor went on to say that what we were getting out of his class was another check that would lead to a piece of paper. A diploma that basically says, "this person knows how to show up at a certain time, is able to learn and understand expectations given to him, and fulfill those expectations in a passable manner".
I remember thinking, "If I'm going to forget most of this, and not use the rest, then why am I here? Why am I wasting all this time when I could be out making money in a real career?"
Well, because I couldn't get a real career until I had the degree. That little piece of paper that only schools of higher education can give. I couldn't become a productive member of society until I sat through roughly 120 weeks of classes. Memorizing information that I would both forget, and never use again.
The professor was right. I remember very little of his class, and to the best of my knowledge I use none of the content in my current career.
Students in any given class are on different levels. Some are very intelligent, and bring a large body of knowledge, expertise, and experience to the class. Others might be slow, and have no experience in the subject matter. The smarter student may do better than the slow student, but one thing is guaranteed; it will take both of them the same amount of time to finish the course. A smarter student can not finish sooner. She is on a boat. The boat will arrive at the harbor and all students will get off. Even if she understands the material, she must float along with the boat and all of the other students, waiting to reach their destination.
Institutions of higher education enjoy a monopoly. Sure, there is the University of Phoenix, and a few other 'for profit' schools out there, but for the most part if you have hopes of earning a decent amount of money working for somebody else, you must earn a degree.
So even if you are bright, have a lot of experience, you are often stuck for 3-5 years earning a bachelors degree, another 1-2 for a masters, and 2-3 for a Ph. D. In order for you to do Ph. D. level work, you must first jump through the proper hoops, most of which, it can be argued, don't add real value to the experience and skills of the student.
There has been a movement of late toward 'opening up' the content of a university. MIT's OCW, Rice's Connexions project, Berkley's iTunes, and many more. I embrace this movement but it is only the first step. Anyone with access to the internet can access the content. The kicker, of course, is that even if you teach yourself the content, learn the skills, or master the information, you don't have anything to show potential employers. If I'm hiring for a position, I want the process to be easy. A degree from a university is an incredibly nice filter for the job I'm looking to fill. I don't want to hire you unless I know that you can show up at a certain time, learn expectations, and fulfill those expectations.
So we now have all this content out there but if a person in a developing country wants to better their life by learning a skill and getting a job, there is still no easy way to demonstrate they have the same skills and knowledge of a person who has gone through the 'traditional route'. The problems is largely left unsolved.
I've recently come upon an idea for alternative accreditation. I'm gathering my thoughts, and I'll post more on the subject later.