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Alternative Credentials Can Motivate Graduate Education to Clarify Outcomes and Quality

Alternative Credentials are Forcing Graduate Education to Innovate
As certificate programs gain in popularity as a means to acquire technical skills, higher education institutions can differentiate their graduate degrees through a focus on deep, conceptual mastery of subject matter.
A few years ago, the New York Times published an article with the headline “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s.”[1] Over the last decade, the master’s degree has been the fastest-growing postsecondary degree, although growth has slowed slightly in the last few years as the labor market has improved.[2]

The master’s has become the entry-level degree in many professions. Employers find it useful for its “signaling” value, institutions have found it lucrative to offer and students seek it in hopes of gaining promotions, higher salaries and access to professional networks.

At the same time, pursuing a master’s degree is a gamble. The programs are not cheap — they can cost anywhere from $20,000 to more than $100,000, often adding to an existing undergraduate student debt — and the anticipated benefits may or may not follow. Given the risks as well as potential advantages, it’s understandable that many individuals would look for an alternative that offers a similar competitive advantage but is more flexible, less costly and provides a swifter path to the rewards of additional training.

Increasingly, that alternative is turning out to be the professional certificate — a credential enjoying enormous growth — that provides training in high-demand areas such as computer technology, criminal justice, counterterrorism, education and healthcare. Certificate programs are shorter, more focused, less costly and arguably more agile in responding to changes in a profession. Clearly, for a lot of people, certificates make a lot of sense.[3]

Certificate programs are one manifestation of a larger movement in higher education toward unbundling: the decoupling of components of the educational experience that used to comprise a coherent whole. Online courses, part-time and co-enrollment, swirling, transfer credits, prior learning assessment, competency-based education, open courseware, massive open online courses, Khan Academy, testing out; all of these phenomena (along with financial stress and the needs of increasingly diverse students) have helped to dissolve what used to be a fairly coherent, unitary campus experience for a fairly homogeneous student body.

Nostalgia is not in order; traditional higher education had distinct limitations. Still, it’s worth asking: what are the advantages of completing a traditional graduate degree program versus earning a certificate? What can a formal master’s degree offer in terms of quality and intellectual experience that a certificate — or even a series of certificates — cannot?

The handful of courses — typically four to six — that adds up to a certificate may lead to strong technical skills, but is unlikely to provide the theoretical framework or overview of the field that a degree program can offer. Certificate courses may offer cognitive knowledge for today, but not the higher-order intellectual skills that can only be developed over time and across multiple contexts.

Of course, enrolling in a master’s program is no guarantee the program will be coherent or provide the outcome of a deep, conceptual mastery of the subject matter. This is an area the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) seeks to address, and we’re currently implementing a process that should support that outcome.

In June 2013, WSCUC approved a new institutional review process that requires institutions to address the “meaning, quality and integrity” of their degrees. It’s a challenging exercise because institutions have not been in the habit of doing this. Most descriptions of a degree program either focus at a very high level of generality on the degree as self-evidently desirable and beneficial, or they veer in the direction of specific degree requirements: courses, credits, GPA, residency, thesis and so on.

WSCUC’s new reporting requirement seeks a middle ground. It asks institutions to clarify the overarching values and purposes their degrees embody and then present evidence of the following:

  • Quality of inputs: e.g. courses, research opportunities, other educational experiences

  • Learning domains, learning outcomes and levels of proficiency appropriate to the degree

  • Alignment of coursework and other experiences with outcomes

  • Coherence of the degree program as a whole

  • Students’ success in meeting performance expectations

To demonstrate success, WASC’s institutions need to present robust evidence of student achievement: not simple, one-dimensional test scores, but multi-method, multi-dimensional evidence. The evidence needs to demonstrate both specialized knowledge and generic higher-level intellectual skills such as written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, problem solving and information literacy — evidence gathered through sophisticated assessment approaches that can serve both outcome improvement and accountability. For a graduate program, this means performance at a level clearly above the baccalaureate.

The new WSCUC requirement wasn’t originally conceived as a direct response to certificates or unbundling, but in the face of these disruptions, it does give institutions a way to “rebundle” — that is, to look at the totality of the degree, fit all the pieces together, ensure quality and articulate the value of the degree to students, their employers, donors, policymakers and the general public. Even for institutions not in the Western region, engaging in this exercise should be extremely useful.

The bottom line here: students should be clear about what they’re getting with a certificate or master’s degree, employers should understand the strengths and limitations of various credentials and institutions should be able to communicate, clearly and honestly, about what they offer.

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[1] Laura Pappano, “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” The New York Times, July 22, 2011. Accessed at

[2] Leila Gonzales, Jeffrey Allum and Robert Sowell, “Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2002 to 2012,” Council of Graduate Schools, September 2013. Accessed at

[3] Jon Marcus, “The ‘Cash Cow’ of U.S. Universities: Professional Certificates Instead of Degrees,” Time Magazine, April 9, 2012. Accessed at

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