By Salman Khan, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit educational organization whose mission is “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” Khan is the author of “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined” (Twelve).

(CNN) – When people talk about education, they are usually mixing together several ideas. The first is the idea of learning. The second is the idea of socialization. The third is the idea of credentialing – giving a piece of paper to someone that proves to the world that he or she knows what they know. These three different aspects of education are muddled together because today they are all performed by the same institutions – you go to college to learn, have a life experience and get a degree.

Let’s try a simple thought experiment: What if we were to separate the teaching and credentialing roles of universities? What would happen if regardless of where (or whether) you went to college, you could take rigorous, internationally recognized assessments that measured your understanding and proficiency in various fields anything from art history to software engineering.

With our hypothetical assessments – microcredentials, if you will – people could prove that they know just as much in a specific domain as those with an exclusive diploma. Even more, they wouldn’t have had to go into debt and attend university to prove it. They could prepare through textbooks, the Khan Academy or life experience. Because even name-brand diplomas give employers limited information, it would be a way for elite college graduates to differentiate themselves from their peers, to show that they have retained deep, useful knowledge.

In short, it would make the credential that most students and parents need cheaper (since it is an assessment that is not predicated on seat time in lecture halls) and more powerful – it would tell employers who is best ready to contribute at their organizations based on metrics that they find important. College would become optional even for students pursuing prestigious and selective career tracks.

Think about the implications. The academic purity of a university experience would no longer be strangely mixed with student career ambitions – no more obsession with getting an “A” in a philosophy class to get a job interview at a consulting firm. Even better, pedigree and selectivity of school would no longer be artificial barriers to entering competitive fields.

College is supposed to be about opening up opportunity, but such is not always the case. The reality today is that the ultra-smart, ultra-hardworking kid from a poor family, who worked full time while getting good grades at a regional school or community college, will almost always be passed over compared with someone graduating from a more well-known and selective school.

Now, these competency-based assessments will not eliminate the need or value of universities for many students. If you decide to attend a university, you will be immersed in a community of inspiring peers and professors doing amazing things. The universities themselves will continue to conduct cutting-edge research that pushes society forward. College will become something similar to an MBA – an optional path that could help, but one that is not a requirement for a satisfying, well-paying profession.

What this will change is the opportunities for the 50-year-old laid-off engineer. He could now show that he still has the analytical skills and brain plasticity to work alongside 22-year-old college grads in a 21st-century job. It would allow the smart, young, single-mother to re-engage with a real career. It would allow recent college graduates to prove they have skills beyond what can be gleaned from their majors and grade-point averages.

It would allow people, in any field, to better themselves and prepare for valuable credentials without being forced to sacrifice money and time that today’s higher education demands.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Khan.