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Innovating with Microcredentials to Stay Competitive

Pathways are critical for students to stay relevant in the job market, and microcredentials are the gateway to get students on this lifelong learning path. 

In today’s market, microcredentials are in high demand by both learners and employers. Institutions need to launch them strategically to meet market needs while working within their own structure. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen discusses the burning topic of microcredentials, how they position universities in the market and how to launch them across the institution. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are microcredentials such a hot topic in higher education right now?

Cathy Sandeen (CS): Post-COVID, there’s a need to provide multiple pathways for individuals to obtain well-paying jobs, and microcredentials are viewed as a way to retool quickly. They’re less of a commitment for students than a full four-year bachelor’s degree program, and microcredentials can open doors for individuals to get started on their pathway to a viable, well-paying career. Microcredentials also augment a traditional degree by providing more detailed information about specific competencies mastered by potential employees.

Evo: When we look at microcredentials, how do they position the university in the market?

CS: This is a question I’ve been struggling with recently. Back in, 2012-14, I was Vice President for Education Attainment and Innovation at the American Council on Education. My job was to highlight educational innovations, and microcredentials were really starting to emerge. At the time, there was a dream that we would have a more robust system of multiple pathways, stackable credentials and microcredentials. We predicted microcredentials would be broadly available and widely accepted by universities, the public, and employers, but they’ve been slower to catch on than predicted. I’m trying to figure out why that is, and I’ve landed on the fact that most employers are still looking at traditional degrees as a screening mechanism for applicants.

Now, there are some exceptions. We know some technology companies, in particular, are looking for specific competencies and will forego degrees for certain positions, but that HR practice is relatively rare. The bachelor’s degree, in particular, signals to employers not only mastery of content related to the discipline but also a demonstration of perseverance, organizational abilities and communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills. Until employers really embrace the microcredential in their HR processes, it’s going to be slow to catch on. But once they do, universities will definitely follow suit.

Evo:  Do you think the university plays a role in helping employers understand this need for microcredentials? 

CS: We work very closely with employers but mostly to get input from them, not the other way around. For example, we have advisory boards for various program areas. We stay in contact with employers about what skills and abilities they are looking for in the people they hire. Universities can potentially start talking about microcredentials with employers, but I’m not sure the extent to which we would influence the practices of the majority of them.

Evo: What are some of the best practices to get the buy-in to implement microcredentials across the institution rather than just in a department?

CS: Our university is very student-centered, so if students start talking about microcrendtials and showing interest in them, that would greatly influence in growing and normalizing microcredentials here. We have some use cases right now. We’re going to launch a one-stop student portal in October, where students can go for deadline information, to schedule appointments with their advisors or to see their progress toward a degree. The dashboard also displays their various badges. Currently at Cal State East Bay, microcredentials are largely focused on co-curricular activities. For example, we have a leadership certificate that students can complete outside their regular course work to earn a microcredential or a badge.

The other thing I’m hoping to do is to get our students thinking about their career path as soon as they join the university. For example, participation in career exploration programs could be documented with badges and microcredentials. I also want to encourage incoming students to develop their LinkedIn page right away, so they can start thinking about presenting themselves as professionals. Over 60% of our students are the first in their family to go to college. They do not necessarily get academic guidance from their families, nor do they receive advice about becoming a professional.

A LinkedIn page is a great place to start accumulating badges for the various co-curricular learning students have achieved. It helps paint a more complete picture of what a student has learned and what they can do. Over time, as we implement these practices, we’ll see the importance of microcredentials growing from student demand.

Evo: How can CE divisions be empowered to scale microcredentials across the institution?

CS: In thinking about Continuing Education, especially the non-degree professional development world, smaller credentials have been around a long time. I wouldn’t call them microcredentials necessarily but sub-degree credentials. People who have already earned degrees have embraced the idea of accumulating additional knowledge in smaller packages, so it’s a good fit for Continuing Education units to promote microcredentials. Think about a certificate program with a number of employer-recognized microcredentials embedded within it. We can provide recognition and credentials for smaller chunks of acquired knowledge and competency.

Evo: What impact do microcredentials have on student enrollment and retention?

CS: Personally, I don’t see a direct link right now. It would be very helpful if we could do some research on whether earning badges along the way to a degree has a motivational effect on students, in terms of persistence. When microcredentials first emerged, they were discussed in parallel with the concept of gamification, which encompasses the idea that small pieces of positive reinforcement can motivate behavior. This is true especially among younger students who are digital natives and seem to be positively impacted by things like the number of likes on social media platforms. Microcredentials could work similarly in terms of motivation. To the extent that we create a system with microcredentials as part of a gamification strategy and we study and measure effects, there may be potential for microcredentials to increase students’ engagement, persistence, retention and graduation. We just need to have more data to study it more intentionally. 

Evo: Is there anything you wanted to add about microcredentials and implementing them at an institution?

CS: We always need to push the envelope in innovation. The status quo is not going to get us where we want to go. And even though microcredentials may seem a bit novel within traditional universities or even within less degree-driven  CE units, we always need to think about innovating in service of our students. Innovations take hold with acceptance by early adopters exhibiting a demonstrated unmet need. The most obvious leverage points for wide acceptance of microcredentials are employer interest and student demand. If we focus on these points, we will see more acceptance and use of microcredentials across the higher education spectrum. Right now, we’re still in the beginning stages of broad acceptance.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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