Published on 2016/09/30
The EvoLLLution | Alternative Credentialing Can Add Value to Degrees
As traditional postsecondary education costs continue to rise, microcredentials and other alternative approaches to higher education are providing affordable and accessible solutions that likely won’t replace, but will complement traditional degrees.

It seems like everyone is looking for that special something—the miracle solution that will replace a creaky, unsustainable higher education system, save money and provide employers with useful information about what new hires actually know. Perhaps it’s some kind of universally accepted “reference letter” that documents skills and aptitudes. That used to be the function of a college degree. A degree was always thought to be currency (backed by respected and accredited academic brands) that could be traded for a job. The boom in credentials that are alternatives to actual degrees might be a sign that the higher ed marketplace has strayed from this tried-and-true model. Alternative credentialing might be the “something” that employers and students are looking for.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with steadily rising tuition, student debt, and inflated grades in majors that often seem far removed from the real needs of the modern workforce. Meanwhile, disruptive, non-traditional new entrants to the higher education market are touting cheaper and more meaningful alternatives to university degrees. Microcredentials, nanodegrees, verified certificates and badges are popular examples of new, standalone credentialing options that might be more attuned to how 21st century learners want to approach education and how recruiting managers evaluate candidates. On the face of it, there is no reason that an alternative credential cannot add value to an employee’s resume.

The important question is whether these alternatives actually work in the sometimes chaotic marketplace that is higher education.

The answer is yes, but not in the disruptive way that you might think. It would be truly disruptive if alternative credentialing were the catalyst for a great unbundling in which some providers streamed inexpensive—often free—content, while others packaged that content in creative ways for those who maintained inventories of job-related skills and issued verified certificates of competency. It is in many ways a compelling vision in which the now-familiar efficiencies of the Internet economy are brought to education. However, as far as anyone can tell, the higher education marketplace does not behave like online markets in which customers are attracted to efficient service providers who pass these efficiencies on to their customers in the form of low prices and improved service delivery. That unbundling has not happened, and I am doubtful that it ever will. There may be value in these new models, but college degrees are the only thing we know for sure that students are willing to pay for in large numbers. College degrees are the currency of the higher ed market, and alternative credentials must find a way to work within that system, because there is no imminent collapse that would devalue that currency.

That does not mean alternative credentialing is a dead end. A few short years ago, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing partnered with a rapidly growing edtech company called Udacity to produce its one-of-a-kind online Master of Science in Computer Science for an unbeatable price tag. Critics scoffed that this “MOOC-based” degree program couldn’t live up the to educational experience of an on-campus program. Supporters lauded Georgia Tech for shucking the traditional concept of what graduate education looks like in the university setting.

The program has been an international success, currently boasting enrollment of nearly 4,000 students in over 80 countries around the world—small by Internet standards, but large enough to significantly expand the national market for graduate education in computer science, according to a recent analysis by Harvard professors. But while Udacity continues to provide support for this growing program, the company has recently pivoted to focus new energy on their innovative nanodegrees. Just as Coursera has seen the growing demand for digital specializations—series of courses that can be taken to earn a certificate of achievement in a specific academic area of interest—Udacity responded to market demands with its tech skill-focused nanodegrees. Even non-profit MOOC provider edX has started to issue micromasters degrees to learners who successfully complete part of a traditional curriculum.

There is a chance for these kinds of alternative credentialing schemes to add value to existing degrees, rather than replace them. A traditional higher ed institution could, for example, choose to accept an alternative credential as evidence of prior learning, a change that would drastically alter admissions processes. A shift of this sort would favor those colleges and universities with the scale to deliver high-quality degrees to a new and rapidly expanding pipeline of learners, many of whom would not otherwise have had access to degree programs.

The thing that is important to note is that this is a “both and” not an “either or” scenario. Students can benefit from the growth and development of both college degree offerings and alternative credentialing. MOOCs and microcredentials provide flexibility—whether learners are looking to work full-time and take online courses to improve their career outcomes or they are mid-career professionals looking to skill-up or pursue a completely new career. On the flip side, the marketplace already knows how to value traditional degrees and many learners still desire sort of “campus experience” during their academic career.

With the rising cost of traditional higher education and an increasingly global workforce, it was inevitable that innovative companies would begin to look for affordable and accessible solutions. Alternative credentialing will not replace traditional degrees. The marketplace understands traditional degrees, but alternative credentials can be an important addition.

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