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Microcredentials Unleashed: Pioneering the Next Frontier

Microcredentials open up possibilities for just-in-time, highly personalized learning, which is exactly what both students and employers need to meet workforce demands. 

As we enter 2024, it is more important than ever for higher education institutions to innovate and rethink the education and learning opportunities they offer to all types of learners. Microcredentialing is one innovation that has gained traction. According to a global survey, 88% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their institution or organization sees microcredentialing as an important strategy for their future. 

The climate is right for microcredentials to scale in higher education. Enrollment and retention are problems across the nation, with institutions losing nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020 (National Student Clearinghouse). There is a growing perception that college degrees are not worth the time and cost. According to the World Economic Forum, 50% of students are choosing not to attend college. Although the data indicate that bachelor’s degree recipients reap many benefits, learners are questioning the return on investment. Learners want more flexible education and training options at lower costs. Some employers, including state and federal governments, no longer require college degrees for employment. As a result, learners are turning to microcredentials to obtain and verify the skills they need to support their career goals. 

Microcredentials have the capacity to generate new enrollment and revenue streams. Verified skills and competencies are becoming the new currency in the hiring process and skills-based hiring is on the rise (see World Economic Forum). The workforce continues to change with new technologies at a pace so rapid it is difficult to imagine the jobs of tomorrow. An estimated 40–50% of employees worldwide will need reskilling by 2025 (World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, 2020). Microcredentials offer a solution to fill both learners’ and employers’ upskilling and reskilling needs.

Short-duration offerings have become the top educational format preference for adult learners. A 2020 Strada Public Viewpoint survey indicated that 68% of adult learners considering enrolling in higher education prefer nondegree pathways. With thirty-nine million people in the United States with some college but no degree, it is clear that higher education has an opportunity here to re-engage these learners, creating lifelong learning opportunities. 

But which alternative credentials will bring learners the highest reward? The landscape can be confusing. We must work collectively to decrease the confusion around what a microcredential represents. According to a Credential Engine report, there are more than one million unique credentials in the United States, with nonacademic providers offering some. Higher education is experiencing content and credential competition. Companies such as IBM, Google, Salesforce, Microsoft, Amazon and Walmart are heavily investing in this ecosystem and demand continues to surge. There is a movement toward the development of microcredentials that assess skills and competencies according to established standards. Multiple stakeholders want to trust the quality of the credentials earned. The University of Maine System Micro-Credential Initiative created a unified framework that includes an applied learning opportunity, to help decrease employer confusion about the quality and rigor.

Employers are becoming more familiar with the benefits of microcredentials and have expressed interest in partnering with universities to create them. They are especially interested in stackable credentials leading to a degree (UPCEA/Collegis study). As we move forward, microcredentials presented as open badges will aid employers in quickly locating needed talent, while reducing their hiring and rehiring costs. Learner Employment Records (LER) tied to employer talent marketplaces will also aid both learners and employers. LERs are comprehensive digital records of learners’ skills, competencies, credentials and employment history that can show a more complete picture of their education and work experiences than a traditional transcript (Digital Promise). LERs have the potential to improve education and hiring outcomes, providing learners with more control over their learning information (see Building a Skills-Based Talent Marketplace for some leaders in this area). Many people are working on ways to efficiently convey verifiable skills to employers at scale. The National Student Clearinghouse, U.S. Chamber of Commerce—T3 Innovation Network and others are working with employers, higher education institutions and organizations to identify best practices. 

Throughout 2024 and beyond, higher education would do well to invest further in flexible, credential pathways and provide appropriate student support. Offering stackable and affordable microcredentials, tied to academic credits, can help meet diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

Universities are taking many approaches to create stackable credentials leading to degrees. Some are proponents of adding credentials within existing degree programs and making skills in courses more visible (see Credential As You Go and Education Design Lab’s 21st Century skill badges). Some stack microcredentials or bundle existing courses within a degree into smaller units, motivating students to continue on their path. Some focus on youth early college and dual enrollment credits to build a pipeline into college. Others are stacking certificates to associate degrees to bachelor’s degrees. Many also put the onus on the learner to seek out academic credits for their prior learning experiences, while others review popular external certifications and award recommended credits based on evaluations such as those from the American Council of Education (ACE). The stackability of shorter-term credentials into degrees will become increasingly important as we continue to scale. Universities must also streamline the processes they have in place for awarding prior learning credits toward degrees (see CAEL website). University policies regarding the number of external credits they accept can also be reviewed.

Is it time to look at your structures, policies and approaches? You may find the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s (UPCEA) Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation helpful. The UPCEA has an index to guide UPCEA institutions in assessing their alternative credential maturity level based on the eight hallmarks. If you are just starting out the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO)’s Alternative Credentials Working Group has an informative report to guide you through your own innovative process. Additionally, for an interesting look into possible futures of education, take a look at Education in 2023, HolonIQ.