Published on 2018/07/30
The EvoLLLution | Microcredentials: On the Outside Looking In
As the world moves towards an increasingly knowledge-based economy, colleges and universities have an opportunity to set the tone on how microcredentials can meet the needs of students and employers alike.
Microcredentials are rising in popularity among higher education institutions. Once considered leading-edge, micro-credentialing is becoming more commonplace despite some cautious skepticism.

Microcredentialing presents a significant opportunity for institutions and their key stakeholders. This article provides insights into its benefits and the role continuing education divisions can play as an institutional catalyst for moving microcredentialing forward.

Benefit to the Institution

Alternative credentialing is on the rise in traditional higher education institutions. In a report by Pearson and UPCEA, Demographic Shifts in Educational Demand and the Rise of Alternative Credentials, research findings indicated that 64 percent of higher education institutions surveyed see alternate credentialing as a future strategy and revenue-generating opportunity, with one in five institutions surveyed currently offering some form of alternative credentialing. Some higher education institutions are partnering with third-party providers while others have chosen to go it alone with alternative credentialing initiatives.  Types of modular learning solutions in this growing market space include such credentials as digital badges, verified certificates, bootcamps, nanodegrees and micromasters.

Some observe that alternative credentialing offerings would expand access to undergraduate and graduate education. Others see the growing demand for lifelong, on-demand learning opportunities that keep pace with changing skill requirements. Microcredentialing is also a means of bringing working adults who already have college degrees back to campus. New realities in the dynamic higher education landscape will increasingly put pressure on institutions to reach broader, more diverse audiences.  Locking on to new, more granular, market-responsive programs that directly address employer skill gaps could provide a viable strategy. 

A Boost to Students, Employers, and Revenue  

Microcredentialing shows promise in improving an institution’s ability to serve students and employers while enhancing revenue. Higher education institutions are eager to find new ways to bring in funds and at the same time employers are concerned about the lack of qualified, skilled workers. This convergence of needs and the promising future that alternative credentialing holds places traditional higher education in a position to better serve students and employers with flexible, high-quality learning options.

The revenue stream that many continuing education units see in their non-credit and CEU offerings could likely expand with savvy product offerings that respond directly to the ever-changing needs of the workplace. Building a personal skill profile is becoming a requisite for success in job hunting, and employers are increasingly disposed to choosing candidates based on what they can do, rather than on their degree or pedigree. As reflected in the surge of non-credit offerings in many continuing education divisions, the workplace is putting more and more value on non-traditional credentials that objectively determine credential-holder skills.

Alternative credentials earned with the stature of a university conceivably carry more weight than recognition from the myriad of online learning platforms now available. With the status that comes with a college or university credential and the extensive teaching and technological assets many institutions possess, higher education is well positioned to serve a market seeking verified credentialing for industry-relevant skills and competencies.

Augmenting the Degree and Student Employability

Earning an alternative credential can be an attractive option for many students. A digital badge or a bootcamp experience for a currently enrolled college student can strengthen job prospects by validating mastery of a specific skill set. For those who already have a degree, brushing up on their skills or learning new skills in a short period of time can help them advance in their current job or help find a new job. Earning an alternative credential may be less overwhelming to the working adult who has neither the time nor the motivation to pursue or complete their degree.

Some blame higher education institutions for inadequately preparing students with the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace. Still, the skills gap may not be caused entirely by the academy, but rather by a lack of employer investment in helping employees develop those skills. Companies are having trouble keeping up and have expressed the need for employees to have more skills training before starting on the job. In a global survey of more than 11,000 business and HR leaders, and interviews with executives from leading organizations, the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report found that more than half of the companies surveyed do not have learning programs focused on building skills for the future. Many companies that have dedicated learning and development functions simply do not have the resources and expertise to teach these new skills.

Higher education institutions can play an essential role in enhancing a student’s employability by unbundling the vast stores of content it possesses or can acquire, and delivering it on demand. Making available small, specific segments that are accessible at any time from any device permits customization of an individual’s skill portfolio.

CE Divisions and their Role in Microcredentialing

There is an increased recognition that lifelong learning is the new economic and social reality. Accordingly, the university-based professional and continuing education division, with life-long learning at its core, is the natural center of the alternative credential enterprise. Continuing education units have a long track record of learning innovation by bringing non-traditional methods of delivery to an adult skills-focused audience.

In an environment where alternative credentials provide a career-enhancing option, continuing education divisions can serve as the linchpin for communicating the value and outcomes of microcredentials. An essential partner of the institution’s career services, community relations unit and industry at large, CE divisions can readily serve as the mainspring for the development and delivery of microcredentials.

As the institutional catalyst for collaboration, engagement with the employer community has typically been a strategic role for continuing education units, and such units are well positioned to monitor employer needs and gauge the value of those high demand skills.

Getting Microcredentials Broadly Understood and Offered

If alternative credentialing is to be broadly understood and offered, spreading awareness and ensuring transparency is the first step.  The relative newness of microcredentials requires employers and students to appreciate their value and outcomes. Just as the popularization of online learning took time to intensify, acceptance and acknowledgment of microcredentialing will proceed at a pace commensurate with the tempo at which the institution communicates the payoff to students, employers, and the campus community. Spelling out the linkages, pathways and distinctions between alternative credentials and traditional credentials (i.e., degrees and credit-certificates) should be part of that strategic communication.

There is robust evidence that microcredentialing programs can be successfully structured and applied. Partnerships between issuers, earners and recognizers continue to grow, but more can be done to broaden the understanding of microcredentials.

Institutions must continue to meet the challenge of verifying, documenting and validating student learning in a way that links workplace employers to job candidates. They must develop pathways connecting alternate credentials to study options and opportunities, and they must have a laser-like focus on in-demand, high-quality, growth-oriented jobs.

Microcredentialing represents a significant opportunity for institutions and deserves serious consideration. Universities are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of learners and provide the right credentialing to signal achievement for students and prospective employers alike. Whether the model used is partnering with employers, forming coalitions with other higher education institutions, or working with existing credentials-providing platforms, it is clear that the world is changing, and in the knowledge-based economy we now live, skills and competencies are its currency. Microcredentialing no longer stands on the fringes of higher education but will become a fundamental way institutions look outward.

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