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Establishing Alternative Credentials as the New Form of Transfer Credit

Alternative credentials cab incredibly beneficial for learners and higher ed institutions alike, but their proper implementation requires transparency, accountability and a focus on learning outcomes.    

In the contemporary landscape of American higher education, alternative credentials have experienced a notable surge in popularity. These credentials tend to be achieved in less time and could manifest in diverse forms, bearing different labels such as microcredentials, badges and certificates. According to a 2023 report by The ExpressWire, the global market size for alternative credentials reached USD $2.26 billion in 2021 and is projected to continue growing at an annual rate of 16.94%, reaching USD $5.78 billion in 2027. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reveal a significant increase of 9.9% in U.S. undergraduate certificate program enrollment, outpacing the modest 0.9% growth observed for bachelor’s degree programs. With the increasing appeal, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has introduced the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, aiming to provide financial support for short-term credential programs.

Despite growing popularity, concerns persist regarding the quality and creditworthiness of alternative credentials. Hepburn (2023) pointed out that some microcredential programs at HEIs did not go through the institution’s quality assurance process and lacked official recognition. A 2022 Inside Higher Ed article by Weissman characterized the current state of the alternative credentialing marketplace as a blend of “innovation” and “chaos.”

To recognize alternative credentials in higher education, a significant challenge consists of establishing a broadly acceptable approach to evaluating alternative credentials’ creditworthiness and transferability to degree programs. The outcomes of such determination would offer an increasing number of credential seekers a more efficient pathway to degree attainment. While there exist numerous instances of individual HEIs evaluating alternative credentials within the context of their academic programs, addressing the broader American higher education landscape presents a formidable challenge. This challenge is exacerbated by the many structures and practices, as Brian Rosenberg argues, impeding colleges and universities from breaking free from traditional paradigms.

More specifically, a consortium of leading higher education experts underscored distinct challenges facing alternative credentials such as bridging noncredit and credit learning, and creating an assessment system that demonstrates value and provides transparency for learners and employers. Similarly, a 2022 study by SHRM indicated that a lack of clarity on competencies and systematic evaluation hindered recognition and acceptance of alternative credentials.

In response to these challenges, this article seeks to introduce targeted strategies focusing on two crucial elements for quality assurance in alternative credential programs: learning outcomes and assessment. Our primary objective is to stimulate dialogue on quality assurance techniques and practices within these realms, with the aim of establishing alternative credentials as a credible form of transfer credit.

Learning Outcomes and Learning Outcome Maps

Learning outcomes, delineating the skills, knowledge and competencies that learners are expected to acquire serve as a cornerstone in ensuring any credential program’s relevance and rigor. HEIs are used to defining learning outcomes for degree programs; to help enhance learning pathway clarity, some HEIs also construct learning outcome maps that show the relationship between skills and competencies throughout the curriculum.

Learning outcome maps serve as a foundation for curriculum development. They help educators design a curriculum that systematically addresses learning outcomes through cohesive and comprehensive learning experiences. To stack and integrate alternative credentials into degree programs, learning outcome maps have the potential to facilitate flexible learning pathways and competency-based education models. From a learner-centric perspective, learning outcome maps provide critical information that helps track progress, recognize and reward prior learning, and foster in learners a sense of self-efficacy, achievement and motivation. Learners could use the information learning outcome maps contain to identify efficient learning paths for upskilling and reskilling, taking into consideration their prior learning. For employers, that information can more effectively demonstrate the value, recognition and portability of the credentials involved and allow employers to make informed decisions about the applicability of a candidate’s skills to their specific needs, contributing to a more transparent and efficient hiring process.Top of Form

To develop alternative credential programs, whether from scratch or by repurposing existing degree programs, HEIs should consider:

  1. Adopting a learning outcomes framework that utilizes a level-based structure for learning outcomes, organized in a stackable manner. Such a framework can help efficiently develop credential programs that can be integrated and stacked for a comprehensive educational experience.
  2. Aligning learning outcomes with industry or professional standards and practices. The alignment helps ensure alternative credentials are relevant and meet the employer expectations. HEIs should involve industry experts in developing and validating learning outcomes and designing curriculum to best support achievement.
  3. Designing flexible learning pathways to accommodate diverse learner needs and backgrounds. HEIs must ensure all pathways lead to the attainment of learning outcomes for alternative credentials. A learning outcomes map anchored in flexible learning pathways can help identify prerequisite skills, allowing learners to start at the appropriate level and progress through the program in ways that suit their individual needs.
  4. Promoting transparency in learning outcomes pathways. This practice demonstrates accountability to learners and employers. HEIs may consider publishing outcomes, outcome maps and how they stack and integrate into degree programs on institutional websites.


Assessment plays a pivotal role in substantiating value and accountability for alternative credential programs. A systematic data-driven approach is essential to ensure learners demonstrate they have achieved learning outcomes and that programs stay relevant and competitive. Compared to degree programs, alternative credential programs may demand a higher level of agility to adapt to shifting industry trends and technological advancement, necessitating ongoing adaptation to assessment and review processes.

To assess alternative credential programs’ overall effectiveness, HEIs should consider embracing a comprehensive evaluation model such as Daniel Stufflebeam’s CIPP model. This model integrates formative and summative evaluations, focusing on four interconnected aspects of a program: needs assessment and goals setting (context), plans and resources (input), program implementation (process), and program outcomes, impact and sustainability (product). Implementing such a model not only systematically evaluates the value and accountability of alternative credential programs but also identifies future improvement strategies.

To further demonstrate alternative credential programs’ value, comparisons can be drawn against outcomes of traditional educational pathways. For instance, a 2020 study by CAEL analyzed data from 72 postsecondary institutions revealing that adult students who earned prior learning assessment (PLA) credits had a 49% graduation rate during a 7.5-year observation period, surpassing the 27% graduation rate documented for those without PLA credits. Additionally, recognizing an alternative credential program’s potential to enhance access to higher education for underrepresented minority groups, HEIs should explore disaggregating outcomes data based on learner characteristics such as race and ethnicity.


HEIs face an urgent need to assess and substantiate the value of alternative credentials, particularly in response to recent changes such as the U.S. Department of Education and the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act by the House Committee on Education and Workforce’s revision of the Gainful Employment rule. We posit that by articulating clear learning outcomes, establishing learning outcome maps anchored in flexible learning pathways and conducting comprehensive and rigorous assessment, HEIs can effectively demonstrate accountability in establishing alternative credentials as a recognized and credible form of transfer credit.