Alternative Paths to Traditional Education

I’ve written quite a bit on the economics of education. My focus has been on alternative credentials. This article distinguishes a concept called an alternative path and describes the importance of that concept.


  1. Definitions
  2. Big Picture
    1. Theoretical Context
    2. Applied Macroeconomic Context
    3. Applied Microeconomic Context
  3. Concrete Examples
  4. Bottleneck Diagnosis

I. Defining Alternative Credentials, Paths, and Pedagogies

Alternative credentials, paths, and pedagogies are distinct.

An alternative, or non-traditional, credential is any credential other than a traditional credential, and an alternative path is other than the traditional path. It’s important to note that the alternative path may culminate in a traditional credential. The traditional path never leads to an alternative credential and alternative credentials always come by alternative paths.

Alternative pedagogies are other than the traditional pedagogy, which is learning by lecture. Alternative pedagogies may be implemented within the traditional, conventional, or legacy education systems and paths. Alternatives would include learning by doing, learning by teaching, the flipped classroom, the Socratic method of teaching, self-directed learning, and unschooling.

A traditional credential would include a high school diploma and a degree from an accredited university. An alternative credential would include professional certification, a Udacity Nanodegree, and all sorts of other things.

To enter the workforce, an individual is typically expected to have a traditional credential, but they need not follow the traditional path to get that credential. The traditional path is a well defined sequence of steps culminating in the acquisition of a traditional credential.

As I’m using the term, strictly traditional education is the central tendency of the level of educational attainment at some time and place. Mean, median, and mode, as opposed to a mean or median level. Strictly speaking, then, the mode of education in the US is going to college, but not graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

To engage a more meaningful conversation, I don’t use the term ‘traditional education’ in the strict sense. Instead, I typically use the term in the broad sense. Broadly, traditional education refers to some interval around the central tendency of education. It refers to most common modes of education, rather than the strictly most common mode of education. This broad concept would technically refer to the range of educational attainment between the first and third quartiles, but in practice I’m not always mindful of those boundaries. Obtaining the college degree or never having attended college are two important traditional paths which fall under this non-strict conceptualization.

The most traditional path would be to attend public school for grades K-12 and the obtain a bachelor’s degree from a public university. Tradition comes in degrees. It’s relatively traditional to go to a private university, a bit less traditional to attend K-12 and university all at private schools, and entirely non-traditional to have been home-schooled through high school.

For the time being my analysis is generally aimed at the US, but various pieces may be extendable.

II. Big Picture

2.1 Theoretical Context

I build on the work of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. I show that his analysis is largely correct, occasionally understated, and very occasionally recommended for modification. Far more importantly, I show that he narrowly focuses on traditional education. I therefore contribute to the literature by analyzing alternative modes of education.

2.2 Applied Macroeconomic Context

Traditional credentials have never been the whole picture of education and they never will be. I expect alternative credentials to become conventional over time, their adoption incentivized by lower costs and higher quality, subject to complicated constraints and caveats. An example of one such caveat is that some industries lend themselves more or less easily to alternative signals. Some examples will be given in section 3.

The specific approaches to education referred to as alternative education today are likely to face diminishing returns. They may or may not become a new normal and one day become contrasted with new approaches. Those new approaches will then rightly be called the alternative and the items we are discussing today will at that time become relatively conventional or traditional. It’s important to note that my research is not aimed at a theory of alternativism. I’m not interested in alternative education qua alternative. I’m interested in a series of concrete practices which exist today and which I refer to as a shorthand by the label of alternative education. That label may no longer be appropriate in ten, twenty, more, or fewer years.

Alternative credentials may be important in the future, but how will society transition into that state? That is where alternative paths become important. If unconventional modes of education are to become conventional, it might be the case, and in fact I hypothesize it will be the case, that the incremental transition will begin with the acquisition of traditional credentials by alternative means and only later by the acquisition of alternative credentials by now-alternative, but then-usual, paths. Institutions will play a key role in normalizing now-alternative credentials because employers will be able to recognize and trust the institutional brand and reputation in order to endow credibility to myriad individual credentials.

2.3 Applied Microeconomic Context

The purchase of education is a kind of investment decision. This relates to individual and firm level decision making and planning in the following ways:

  1. Businesses need to track employee skills.
  2. Businesses need to grow capabilities.
  3. Businesses need to hire effective workers at a low price.
  4. Learning management systems are a significant business expenditure.
  5. Individual budgeting, career planning, education planning, financial planning, and life planning.

The purchase of education is a kind of investment decision. In taking a broader look, a person might consider whether they are better off using some amount of money to pay off a car, house, or credit cards rather than purchasing additional education at some point in time. This involves a bit of preference analysis as investment decisions result in a basket of risk, return, and cash flow effects. It is relatively easy to calculate return on investment for each investment opportunity, where purchasing more education is one such opportunity, but such an interest-to-interest comparison of point-estimates is an oversimplification without adjusting for the other mentioned factors.

III. Concrete Examples

  1. Alternative Credentials
    1. Professional certification
    2. Technical Bootcamp, including Coding and Data Science perhaps among others.
    3. Coursera Specialization, Udacity Nanodegree, or other credential from the online course provider market.
    4. A portfolio
  2. Alternative Paths
    1. K-12
      1. Charter School
      2. Homeschooling
      3. Private School
    2. Higher Education
      1. Military*
      2. Get a non-US university degree
      3. Get a degree online
      4. Get an associate’s degree
      5. Vocational School
      6. Internship
      7. Direct to job market
        1. Then never get a degree
        2. Then get a degree with employer-assisted funding
      8. Create a portfolio of work
      9. Obtain an alternative credential
  3. Alternative Pedagogies
    1. Learning by doing
    2. Learning by teaching
    3. Flipping the classroom, self-directed learning and unschooling
    4. The Socratic method of teaching

*Going into the military is a unique path as it has both traditional and alternative properties. I analyze this path separately.

IV. Bottleneck Diagnosis

A person can usually substitute relevant work experience for a traditional credential, but this mainly just pushes the problem to the acquisition of the first career-relevant job. Alternative credentials are still used in a minority of cases. This might be because they don’t work and employers properly fail to recognize them, or alternatively they do work and employers are inefficiently failing to recognize that. In the latter case employers would be a bottleneck.

  • 1

1 thought on “Alternative Paths to Traditional Education”

Leave a Comment