Published on 2016/09/26

Moving from “Alternative Credentials” to an Integrated Credential Ecosystem

The EvoLLLution | Moving from “Alternative Credentials” to an Integrated Credential Ecosystem
As alternative credentials continue to gain steam, the higher education marketplace is moving towards a place where they will simply be considered “credentials.”

Today’s employers want insights beyond the traditional degree and transcript, and prospective employees are looking for new ways to share those insights. From this demand has come a movement sweeping across today’s postsecondary marketplace to find new ways for individuals to gain and share the knowledge, skills, competencies and achievements they need to stand out in the labor market. As a result, we have alternative credentials. In this interview, Jamie Merisotis reflects on the potential for alternative credentials to reshape the postsecondary environment and shares his thoughts on the roadblocks standing in their way.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why have alternative credentials—like badges, certificates and other microcredentials—grown so much in popularity in recent years?

Jamie Merisotis (JM): There has been a rising demand for talent in the U.S. and that talent is increasingly being developed in postsecondary environments—not just in colleges and universities but also in the workplace, in the military and in direct-to-consumer, technology-mediated platforms.

The demand for talent is rising, which means that in order for people to get to that higher level of talent they need to learn—they need to have the opportunity to expand their knowledge, skills and abilities. These alternative credentials have become another avenue for people to demonstrate to employers that they have the talent that’s required to make them successful in an evolving labor market.

The other element of this is that consumers are increasingly demanding the opportunity to demonstrate their talent in ways beyond traditional degrees. You can see that because of the explosive interest in things like LinkedIn, where people have opportunities to tell their own story through their profiles, their ePortfolios and other ways. People are looking to amend what might be told through a traditional degree to help enhance their job market profile. These alternative credentials represent a new path for consumers to be able to demonstrate their competencies and skills.

Evo: As these alternative credentials are workforce-oriented and often non-credit, what role will non-institutional education providers play in making them more common?

JM: One of the things that we are seeing emerging, from a market perspective, is a postsecondary learning ecosystem where colleges and universities are—and will continue to be—the primary providers of postsecondary learning. But with the democratisation of learning that’s taking place through technology, workplace-based learning and other avenues, it’s not a surprise that we’re seeing this as its evolution taking place.

Over time, there are going to be efforts—and Lumina is engaged in some of those efforts—to try to organize more of these non-institution-delivered credential systems in ways that integrate and connect with existing systems. In other words, we’re finding ways for non-institutional education providers to better link certifications, certificate, degrees, industry-driven qualifications and new efforts like badges and other types of credentialing, with the existing credential ecosystem.

It’s important to point out that some of these alternative credentials are unaccredited in the traditional sense, but many of them are being recognized by employers as legitimate indicators carrying labor market value. What we’re going to be seeing is an effort to express this postsecondary learning ecosystem through an expanded system of credentials. These alternative providers like bootcamps are going to be formally included in that postsecondary learning ecosystem sooner rather than later.

Evo: Should colleges and universities be moving to create pathways to earn these kinds of alternative credentials?

JM: Colleges and universities are already developing new pathways to offer alternative credentials and you’re going to see an acceleration of that, in part because it’s in their self-interest to do so. Moving forward with alternative credentials will allow institutions to continue to play a leadership role in the postsecondary learning ecosystem. What’s more, they bring expertise and capacities that others in the system don’t have nearly as much of.

For example, edX—which is a collaborative venture of MIT and Harvard—has now moved in a preliminary way into microcredentialing by offering micro-master’s and micro-bachelor’s degrees. This is a good development for higher education because it’s using the innovative platform of edX but has the support of the faculty, who approve these new types of credentials as not only legitimate but as feeders into the traditional degree program. In the micro-master’s experiments that edX has already done, students can transfer their micro-master’s credits into a traditional master’s program.

Like I said, that innovation is already taking place and it’s a good thing for higher education. It’s also a good thing for consumers because it expands their opportunities to demonstrate that they know and are able to do certain things that are going to help them advance in the labor market.

Evo: What is the long-term potential for these alternative credentials?

JM: Long term, we’re going to see a broader ecosystem of credentials. Degrees are going to continue to be seen as the primary credential delivered through formal higher education. However, in this ecosystem, we’re going to see an expansion in the recognition and understanding of what degrees, certificates, certifications, badges and other credentials actually mean, in terms of one’s ability to get a good job and to lead a good life.

In that context, we’ll use the word “alternative” a lot less than we do right now, because they are alternatives to the current system of degrees. Over time, we’re going to see this as a more integrated, cohesive ecosystem within which degrees will continue to play an important role.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks standing in the way of them actually achieving this potential?

JM: There are natural impediments in the way of this credential ecosystem. One roadblock is tradition—it’s a change from what employers and consumers are accustomed to. Understanding and recognizing why these other types of credentials have value runs into the argument of, “Well degrees have worked for us for the last century; why would we do something else?”

Another impediment is that the quality assurance systems for alternative offerings aren’t as well known and, in some cases, don’t exist in the way they do for degrees. Now, of course, the quality assurance system for degrees—which is the existing accreditation system—is under a lot of fire, but that system is at least better understood than what we might recognize as quality assurance for some of these other types of credentials. That’s another reason why there are limitations.

The third impediment to this credential ecosystem is government policy. The fact that, right now, students can only get federal financial aid for accredited, degree-granting programs at Title IV eligible institutions is a limitation. Of course we’re seeing some experimentation with that. The Department of Education is currently supporting experimental sites and other strategies, but the federal government’s current policy is another impediment. Federal policy is not keeping up with the innovation that the market is pushing through these alternative approaches.

Evo: How does the lack of federal financial aid availability impact the compulsion education providers—either accredited or unaccredited—might have to launch these offerings?

JM: Clearly education providers are disincentivized to create and offer these programs because of the lack of financial aid availability. It’s also the case that these offerings are not as compelling from the learner perspective, because the majority of people who want to learn in a postsecondary context today are going to require financial support. The majority of American college students today received some form of federal student aid—grants, loans or work studies—so if resources aren’t available, that’s an impediment from the student perspective.

If learners aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, that’s an impediment to the providers developing these new kinds of programs. Federal policy has been a headwind on innovation, but I am encouraged by EQUIP, I’m encouraged by bipartisan interest in competency-based learning. Congress are now encouraging some of these new approaches, which are rooted in what we understand—from a higher education perspective—learning actually represents. However, it’s critical to also support movements to express that learning it in new ways, in terms of how the meaning of the credential evolves.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you see as being the future of alternative credentials in the postsecondary ecosystem?

JM: I talked a little bit about this in my book, America Needs Talent. I can envision a world where we see this broader postsecondary learning ecosystem emerging, even in places like libraries and museums in addition to workplaces, the military and these direct-to-consumer efforts. These providers might all be seen as part of the postsecondary learning ecosystem in the not-too-distant future.

It’s interesting that the language is moving more rapidly than I would have guessed towards this notion of “providers of postsecondary learning” as opposed to “institution of higher education.” There’s growing recognition that, while colleges and universities are really important providers of postsecondary learning, they do not have a monopoly on the space. That’s probably an indicator that this new ecosystem is emerging and is going to grow in the near term.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • The labor market and students themselves are demanding new ways to gain and display their learning, skills and competencies—it’s time for education providers to keep up.
  • In the not-too-distant future, there will be a more robust postsecondary ecosystem, where higher education institutions will hold primacy, but that will also include bootcamps and other alternative providers.
  • Federal financial aid and accreditation needs to keep up with evolving market demand in the alternative credentialing space.