Published on 2016/09/23

Alternative Credentials and the Pathway to an Unbundled Higher Ed Environment

The EvoLLLution | Alternative Credentials and the Pathway to an Unbundled Higher Ed Environment
The transition towards unbundled, alternative credentials could spell significant benefits for students, employers and institutions forward-thinking enough to see the opportunity.

Over the past few years, the number of providers of alternative credentials—both inside and outside the accredited higher education space—has skyrocketed. Increasing numbers of students are pursuing these alternative approaches to higher education and more and more institutions are looking for ways to capitalize on this trend. In this interview, Michelle R. Weise shares her thoughts on some of the reasons the postsecondary space is moving in this direction and reflects on the long-term impacts the trend could have on the industry.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are alternative credentials growing so much in popularity?

Michelle R. Weise (MRW): We have an up-credentialing problem in the United States: Most employers demand higher-level and more degrees for jobs that don’t really require a degree in the first place. Other than a degree and certain professional certifications, there are few, clear and broadly accepted ways to express to employers a job candidate’s capabilities and skills for our rapidly evolving knowledge economy.

Thankfully, however, some employers are starting to realize that they cannot continue to use a degree because it’s too blunt a proxy for capabilities. Some acknowledge that they need to be more creative about how to increase diversity in the workforce. Requirements like a bachelor’s degree and two years of prior work experience can end up making a workforce whiter and more male-dominated. Alternative credentials will go hand-in-hand with new forms of talent acquisition and strategy.

We also have to understand that there is increased entrepreneurship in the younger generation. The Kauffman Foundation has found that 54 percent of Gen Y want to start a business or have already started one; the US Chamber of Commerce cites that more than a quarter (27 percent) are already self-employed; and Northeastern University’s 2015 survey of Generation Z (a national survey of people aged 16 to19) found that 42 percent of respondents “expect to work for themselves at one point in their career.”

As a pipeline of prospective employment candidates with alternative credentials emerges that produces workers who are just as qualified—if not better suited than—students from traditional four-year programs, employers will likely move toward a system that highlights easily legible student learning outcomes and meaningful skill sets. We’re already witnessing the wild success of alternative pathways like immersive coding bootcamps, which are filling a void in terms of the labor market’s technical needs.

Evo: How do colleges and universities benefit from creating greater access to alternative credentials for their students?

MRW: We need many more on- and off-ramps to learning in postsecondary education. Colleges and universities that are forward-thinking acknowledge that four years of school on the front-end will not necessarily last a lifetime and that we need to build more accessible and affordable pathways for working adults to continually skill up for opportunities in emergent fields.

There can’t be such an abyss between education and the workforce, or between education and training. Institutions of higher education will need to play some role as a skills development engine for employers, as well as offer better transitions in what are currently dead ends in our system.

To give you an example, there’s something amiss when a school can offer associate’s degree programs in Applied Sciences (AAS) in fields that include skills-based courses like JavaScript, Proofreading and Editing, Introduction to Welding, or Biomedical Measurements, but students cannot easily transfer that learning into bachelor’s degrees. Students who opt into AAS or more career-oriented programs are those who find themselves unable to delay earning a family-sustaining wage for four or more years and see the benefit in a degree that will lead them towards near-term career opportunities.

It’s the main reason why “low-income, adult, and first-generation students are overrepresented in career programs at both community and for-profit colleges,” explains Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. If a student from an AAS program were to try to apply her credits toward a bachelor’s degree program, she would find that most of her credits would not be transfer-worthy, and the credit loss would be so substantial that she would, in many cases, have to start over in a four-year program.

This is simply untenable and one of the leading causes of low completion rates in community colleges. As a result, as McCarthy explains, “vocational pathways have operated more like educational cul-de-sacs, cut off from main roads and with weak linkages to further learning opportunities or career advancement.”

Colleges and universities must begin acknowledging that students need alternative pathways to success. Not everyone wants or needs a traditional degree. Some students may already have a degree while others may need some sort of credential to get them to the next level or even maintain their current job.

Evo: What does the rising demand for alternative credentials say about the market’s perception of traditional degrees?

MRW: A college transcript is a black box when it comes to revealing a person’s talents, competencies and skill sets. Courses and letter grades tell us little about what students can do with their knowledge. A degree is only so useful as a proxy for capabilities. Meanwhile, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, the US economy will create 55 million job openings, 24 million of which will be entirely new positions. Most of these jobs will be less physically intensive and instead emphasize skills like active listening (48 percent of jobs) as well as leadership, communication, analytics and administration competencies.

We’ll need to make better connections and translations between our courses and what The Institute for the Future has identified as skills of 2020: competencies like sense-making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competency, computational thinking, new-media literacy, transdisciplinarity, design mindset, cognitive load management and virtual collaboration.

As more work becomes automated and computerized in the future, we will need to rely increasingly on these kinds of “soft,” baseline skills. Alternative credentials must do a good job of translating the knowing into doing by verifying and validating skills—even around competencies that can be harder to measure.

Evo: How might alternative credentials precipitate an unbundling of the traditional degree?

MRW: Alternative credentials can serve as learning on top of a degree, but they could also be powerful as sub-baccalaureate signals. We can no longer make blanket statements that all people need a college degree—that college graduates will always earn more over a lifetime. Data from American Institutes for Research (AIR) suggest that sub-baccalaureate credentials in fact can lead to middle-class earnings and sometimes even exceed the earnings of graduates with bachelor’s degrees. Those earnings premiums are not just true for the first year out of school, but also five and ten years out of these programs.

Some students may just need just a little bit of learning or a cluster of competencies to get them to the next level. Although most of the current thinking is tackling how to stack informal learning into microcredentials and degrees for the future, there may also come a point in time when students don’t even need the learning to stack into larger or more holistic credentials.

I don’t know about you, but I have been receiving more and more resumes in which people are listing their Udacity nanodegrees or their HBX courses and MIT XSeries. These alternative credentials signal to me that a candidate has a certain curiosity and perhaps even enough knowledge to be dangerous. Alternative credentials help mark a person’s broadening of understanding various disciplines.

Will those be enough for employers? Not yet perhaps, but there’s nothing to prohibit these credentials from gathering more heft and meaning over time. The proof will be in the performance of the students with these credentials, and coding bootcamps have already begun to demonstrate to employers that these alternative credentials are just what they need to make an informed hiring decision. We’ll see more immersive experiences like these proliferate with time, and we should all be paying attention.

Evo: Would this unbundling be a positive or negative trend over the long term?

MRW: Unbundling is great for some but not all. It especially depends on the generation of learner/worker we’re discussing. It’s vital to parse between the silver generation, baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and millennials. For some older working adults, we are finding that so much of life gets in the way of their pursuit of educational goals that many just want to be told exactly what to take next. Contrast those learners with millennials and Gen Y students who are acclimated to finding resources on their own and just in time. Would highly curated pathways work for these students, or would they perhaps resist such tailoring? Do they really need our help in accessing the right kinds of learning for themselves? These learners may not wish to be told what pathway to take.

It really depends on who the learner is. Some will be seeking unbundled options for learning, while others will continue to depend heavily on heavily scaffolded and curated pathways for educational development.

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Key Takeaways

  • An unbundled, just-in-time model for learning works well for younger generations of students, but this less prescriptive approach might not be as appealing to older learners.
  • Given the up-credentialing crisis in the labor market, alternative credentials can provide relief by creating avenues for prospective employees to signal specific skills and competencies.
  • As higher education transitions from a one-time affair into a lifelong endeavor, colleges can benefit from creating more on-ramps and off-ramps for students.
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