Microcredentialing: A Win-Win-Win for Businesses, Students and Educational Institutions
The thunderous plea from business and industry constituents to address the growing talent shortage has compelled many institutions to re-evaluate the alignment of their current academic practices. This evaluation has resulted in the reexamination of many new and existing approaches such as microcredentials. Microcredentials are not new to academia; however, broad and cross-institution integration may be considered new or certainly rare. If asked, institutional personnel will agree that microcredentials have value in the workplace.
However, having a general understanding of some of the benefits does not appear to be a substantial driver for the implementation of an institution-wide integrated approach. So, if microcredentials can increase the enrollment and retention in credit programs, provide a talent pipeline to businesses at an accelerated pace, increase college revenue and cater to student needs, then why are institutions not implementing processes supporting the wider use of microcredentials in credit and noncredit programming? Is it that we are not fully convinced that the benefits outweigh the efforts required to overcome the barriers to integrated efforts? Are we even clear on the benefits? If so, then how do we connect both sides for an integrated approach? What is that button that connects both the noncredit and credit side of the institution?
As educators, we are primarily preparing individuals today for tomorrow’s workforce. Somewhere along the way, institutions made the decision to support a rigid system not necessarily supportive of flexibility and change. This rigid system is a barrier in itself that is not producing the workforce pipeline at the rate and amount needed by business and industry. Many credit program requirements create a barrier resulting in microcredentials being utilized in noncredit programming as opposed to cross-college integration.
Another barrier lies in the various meanings we associate with the term microcredential. For the sake of this article, we will define microcredentials as groupings of interconnected topics having a single focus on an identified competency that when grouped together represent a larger body of knowledge. Microcredentials are those competency groupings that when taken in any order will result in an industry recognized skill and when grouped can be transcripted resulting in credit-bearing certificates, degrees or other industry acknowledgements associated with a specific body of knowledge.
Microcredentials are often housed in what is referred to as the noncredit division of educational institutions, so their benefit to the institution as a whole is not optimized. Before identifying potential strategies to button the two sides of the institution together, we may need to name a few more barriers, just for honorable mention.
Other items institutions list as needing to be addressed to overcome barriers include the decision of the model used for implementation, the transcription process, the method(s) used for the noncredit-to-credit process (i.e., credit for prior learning), defining and clarifying a new curriculum development process, a method for handling currently existing programs, scheduling changes, identification of credit versus noncredit students who exist in the same classroom at the same time, integrating contextualized learning and resource support, addressing selective admission processes, charging or not charging a transcription fee and how supporting the workforce through microcredentials impact the college’s current funding model (i.e., appropriations for noncredit or the lack thereof).
Though a voluminous task, the discussion of many of these items automatically leads to the discussion and resolution of other items on the list. Using this list as an initial reference for brainstorming may reduce the amount of time spent in debating the difficulty or impossibility of this task and support a shift into problem solving.
Ensuring as many cross-college stakeholders are represented when compiling this list, will shorten the amount of time needed to start the process over, due to not having introduced important components for consideration. Examples can be provided for each of the topics listed above that address each concern. However, for brevity, only the initial brainstorming list has been included. Once the group’s brain buffer has been emptied regarding the barriers to address, listing the substantial benefits is a welcome relief.
The benefits of institution-wide integration are many but vary based on factors such as legislation, college funding model, college system or independent governance, statewide certification structure and more. However, in general, full integration of microcredentials results in increased access, diversity, workforce, employee value, company revenues, lifelong learning opportunities and the scalability of enrollment.
Providing a clear pathway from a noncredit microcredential to a credit degree or certificate, that is evidenced on a single transcript, reduces the amount of friction for non-credit to credit conversions. Additionally, based on the college’s funding model, identifying a noncredit student as a credit student earlier in the process can maximize the benefit provided through state appropriations established to provide remuneration for the enrollment of credit students. Credit and noncredit students can experience the same academic rigor with a single faculty, attending classes at the same time.
This additionally reduces the need to cancel classes due to low enrollment and maintaining separate faculty and trainers for credit and noncredit classes. This has a larger impact than simply the offer of shorter sections. Businesses of all sizes are more able and willing to cover the investment of microcredentials than the full financial commitment to degreed programs formerly only available to larger companies. This means the college has a new constituency providing revenue to the institution.
This places the college in a more collaborative partnership position for the business’s growth, as topics center on succession planning for the businesses, just-in-time trainings and meeting market demands faster through the utilization of microcredentials. This direct investment from business and industry additionally supports the college’s sustainability as a viable stream of income to capitalize on. Obviously, this list of benefits could continue by stating additional benefits for the learner as well as industry. However, the question still exists: How do you button the two sides of the college for an integrated approach?
It is suggested that two main pathways are considered for review: 1) the path of identifying microcredential opportunities within currently existing programs and 2) the path forward as new programs are developed, which addresses the opportunities for microcredentials as new programs are developed. Each path has various subsections for consideration and planning.
Considerations for currently existing programs include engaging a faculty champion in conjunction with noncredit personnel to ensure program alignment and proper schedule changes to group the skills in a block to satisfy the competencies for the credential or skill for both credit and noncredit. For new program development curriculum processes, this collaboration between the institution’s noncredit and credit sections include identifying the labor market data (and industry input) supporting the competency block as in-demand for that particular microcredential.
Identification of these cross-fitting or crosswalked competencies from noncredit to credit additionally codifies the blocks of competencies for transcription in the future. Otherwise, students must go through a more manual and individualized process of credit for prior learning (as is many processes for existing program microcredential development).
In both pathways, it is recommended that the decision matrix supporting the labor market data research and cost benefit analysis (pro forma), be conducted for the microcredentials (individually) as well, not just the overall program. This approach will support the economic the noncredit microcredential’s feasibility and viability and not just that of the overall degree or credit certificate. The increased opportunities support an institution’s third-party billing options, corporate college positioning and relevancy as it relates to the income driver of the credential and in-demand competency.
In summary, there are components to reducing the level of friction colleges may face when instituting microcredentials as integrated offerings. There are more benefits to be gained from engaging in this work and codifying the processes to ensure a new direction than there are challenges to address. Begin with airing out the perceived barriers, then identify the exhaustive list of benefits in conjunction with area stakeholders, after which the work to find the right buttons aligns almost automatically.
Author Perspective: Administrator