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Shaping the Future of Higher Ed With Short-Term Credentials

Higher education has had to find creative ways to survive the hit the pandemic has caused, and short-term credentials are the solution to creating a positive future for institutions and its learners. 

For higher education to transform, it needs to first consider its students and their needs, and begin to adopt a student-centric approach. With student centricity comes the delivery of customer service that meets these needs, and to get there, staff must have the right systems in place to execute this vision. Institutions need to break down their traditional structures to offer more accessibility and flexibility. In this interview, Tatum Thomas discusses how short-term credentials fit into the student-centric transformation for higher ed, what’s expected from the modern learner and how institutions can execute this vision. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In regard to the concept of transformational higher ed and student centricity, why is it so important for institutions to focus on providing short-term programming for learners?

Tatum Thomas (TT): The need for short-term programs will align with the lifestyles and preferences of emerging students. An increasing number of learners want to avoid multiple years of costly study that delay professional mobility, defer entry into the workforce, or limit cutting-edge skill development. The world is changing at a rapid rate, and so is work. As work changes, learners’ needs and skills evolve as well. Short-term programs or an array of microcredentialing options are essential because they offer focused, content-rich subject matter designed to help learners practice what is learned. It is important to align with learners’ expectations because there are new entrants into the higher education delivery business. These entrants design with quality and deliver with speed and savviness. Traditional higher education practitioners must design, develop, and deliver content that aligns with the expectations of the new learner.

Evo: What are the characteristics of the emerging student?

TT: The decision-making approach has changed. Students want to visualize and observe intended outcomes before making an investment—whether they’re investing their time, their own money or someone else’s, such as their parent’s or a loved one. The promises of the past, such as “if you get a degree, good things will happen”, simply hold little efficacy today. This generation has witnessed many success stories emerge despite formal education. From tech gurus to social media influencers, the emerging students are keenly aware that there is more than one way to hone a craft and succeed. 

This is the moment in time when students believe, more than ever, that they can have it all. If I reflect on when my parents were growing up, people had one job or focus for the majority of their lives. Back then, if you were at home, you were a homemaker. If you took photographs, you were a photographer. If you managed your own business, you were a businessperson. Today, considering a traditional higher education approach, these three roles, would require years of preparation or study. The emerging student has the capacity to find a way to hold all of the previously mentioned roles simultaneously or with some degree of overlap. They embrace a boundless mindset and have little interest in taking inordinate amounts of time to achieve results. 

The emerging student is multi-dimensional, and educational offerings should include design elements that align with attributes. The emerging student envisions themselves conquering achievements at a non-linear and rapid pace. For this reason, short modular learning opportunities with options across topics might appeal to the emerging student. These are a few examples of how lifestyles and preferences have changed, and how short-term credentials might align with the emerging student.

Evo: How much intersection is there between the concept of student centricity and the delivery of customer service?

TT: We should consider what it means to be student-centric; that word easily rolls off of higher ed professionals’ tongues. There are also variations, such as, “We serve our students” or “We’re here for them”. What do those statements really mean when we’re also trying to run the massive engines that power higher education? Subconsciously, this is our way of relaying that we understand our students. We know what we know through comparative studies, market research, job analyses, employment data, and postsecondary research. However, because a great deal of our work is at scale, we don’t have authentic or pure student-centricity. Instead, its quasi-centric. I say quasi-centric because the service models that we employ are primarily designed to maximize efficiencies or manage costs.

Consider deep investments with online program management providers, marketing and recruitment efforts, or our complex admissions operations. These areas in the business of higher ed aim to enhance the experience to ensure that our institutions are selected out of the sea of many. Sometimes we achieve models of higher efficiency and lose a little bit of connectivity with students because we entrust relationship development to external partners. Our approach to connecting with students has changed.

The student of tomorrow must matter. For us to be student-centric, we have to remain in tune with their preferences, while ensuring that engagement and efficiency takes precedence over systems and tools. It’s not just about deciding to join an institution; it’s going to be about deciding to join an institution for the sake of continued learning and the acquisition of varied competitive skills over time, so a student emerges a multifaceted. There is an intersection between student-centricity and the delivery of customer service—it’s now more nuanced.

Evo: What are some of the challenges or obstacles that you’ll face when developing more industry-oriented or outcomes-oriented non-degree certificates and micro-credentials?

TT: The structures within higher ed were originally conceptualized to be quite staid, buttressed by formal processes and rigid design. The rate of design, development, and execution was quite slow. Depending on the type of institution, institutional structures might present a challenge in the pursuit of non-degree offerings. Some institutions who’ve embraced being nimble, entrepreneurial and agile can move forward with a couple of tests or pilot programs, or roll out a beta model, and offer micro-credentials with haste. Institutions with governing structures that embed restrictive processes or unnecessary oversight on all non-degree offerings—no matter the type–will face limitations. So, words of caution: understand that the world outside of academia has changed. If students believe that they’re not going to get modern, relevant education in a timely manner, institutions will lose viability.

Evo: What are some of the benefits that a college or a university will experience if they take non-degree program development and delivery more seriously?

TT: If they take it more seriously, they’ll see growth and opportunities, such as students returning overtime. They’d also benefit from attracting students from new markets or industries. I’ve given this some additional thought, and now I believe we should consider that we might need to do a better job at educating our colleges and universities on the nature of non-degree programming. Can we say with confidence that the decision-makers understand the range of credentials and delivery formats? Can we say with certainty that they trust the quality? If we can’t answer yes to these two questions, then we can’t expect decision-makers to take it seriously. They must first learn about existing non-degree offerings. The best way to convey the seriousness of our non-degree opportunities is through research and case evidence. 

If you compare what it takes to fully launch a four-year degree versus a certificate that could bring in thousands of students, even if it’s online, and if you align the costs with people’s interests, institutions will see a reward in being able to sustain something over time. Institutions will also have the opportunity to engage in new content that refreshes over time. So, instead of going with a state curriculum model that takes anywhere from three to five years to get a full-scale revision or rewrite done, they’re able to refresh their content in months.

And when there’s emerging technologies, new policies, approaches, executions, these smaller opportunities are going to give institutions the potential to integrate more relevant and current content into their educational offerings rapidly. So, it’s the rate, the relevance, and the currency that ensure that our organizations thrive over time.

Evo: When it comes to providing personalized pathways and the structure of the institution, what would it take from staff to execute on that flexibility and continuous access vision? 

TT: We need to be more creative, particularly in thinking about who our alumni are. Unfortunately, we tend to think of them as future donors or reunion attendees. No, they want to benefit from lifelong learning. And the more you maintain that connection, the more that you’re able to rescale and help your alumni upskill, the more they will maintain lifelong connections with your organization. It’s not just about physically being at the brick and mortar. We have to start thinking from an organizational context: how are we going to engage our alumni?

And for me, the only answer is through continuous learning and creative packaging. Some people are considering the subscription models for alumni to return X number of times over a certain number of years, and then they’ll have a new portfolio of offerings available to them. What would be wonderful is if prior learning within someone’s degree program were directly connected to from the benefits of post-degree completion. For instance, if they were taking a technology-related course, say, in 2015, how has that area since developed? What are the new tools and technologies ten years down the line? And will that alumni come back to retool? In that area, they shouldn’t have to look elsewhere for it. Universities should focus on being their home for learning.

And I’m not saying that we have to provide everything. You could scale and figure out what menu works best for your graduates down the line. But we certainly should be thinking about lifelong learning and fostering it, not just leaving it up to the students. It’s an area that our institutions can capitalize on while ensuring a sense of community. The best way to ensure our future is take care of our students and alumni. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add on how you see short-term and micro-credentials fitting into higher education’s future?

TT: Certainly, during this time, we know that many institutions don’t have the enrollments they once had. We’ve figured out creative ways to sustain ourselves past 2020. We’ve pivoted with agility and creativity. These key factors are essential, and moving forward, the rapid development of tech-enhanced offerings will be embedded into our strategic plans. COVID-19 catalyzed our agility and creativity. Now higher education must plan, strategically, as though agility and creativity are the norm. These are the new foundational elements of program design.

Evo: In your position within a highly competitive geographic space all at different levels or stratifications, what are the factors that you need to highlight so you stand out to your ICP?

TT: Things that we perhaps took for granted are going to stand out even more. Beyond the content that we’re delivering, beyond our designs, beyond various platforms, and solid infrastructure, it’s going to be about our approach and connection with individual learner needs. Learner needs will be more nuanced, and they are looking for maximized value. We’re establishing a new baseline.

And if there is a new baseline, it will change in a few years. Therefore, every cycle, we must re-assess the quality and value of our offerings. We must ask ourselves, what else the organization can offer. What are the additional benefits? How are we the best in class? How are we the best in business?  What else can we do for people joining us to make our products more attractive?

Evo: What does the experience of a student who thinks like a customer look like for ROI, and what is the responsibility of the institution to make sure that they’re not having to overcome them?

TT: We need to be realistic. Consider the Amazon model: they know what they offer, and they know who they are. At the same time, they’re offering up choice and a good, timely delivery format. They’re making certain that people have what they want with haste. Higher education must deliver those core attributes. As students assess our offerings, they’d be interested in hearing about potential, supplemental offerings, options that will maximize value, or options similar to what they have already chosen. Students are asking higher education for more. 

What students spend on higher education is far greater than what they spend on Amazon, so we need to take it seriously.  We develop new products; Amazon primarily sources them from other entities. They’re not designing and developing. They’re not making products, but they’ve mastered customer choice, logistics and delivery. The gaps in higher ed are our ability to support student choice and engagement in effective and timely delivery.  Yes, some of us connect with online enrollment management entities to support delivery, but relationships of that type are not possible for every institution. 

It is possible to reach students who think like customers. We must understand the behaviors that motivate students and offer value-laden choices through delivery models that align with their expectations.  


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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