Strategic and Operational Roadblocks to the Broad Acceptance and Development of Microcredentials
Microcredentials have gained significant acceptance and popularity in recent years. Some say they will be paramount for the future success and long-term viability of higher education institutions. Their value is embraced as the landscape of education and professional development evolves to meet consumers’ changing needs and technological advancements accelerate the pace of change in almost every industry. Educational institutions are turning to microcredentials as a means of providing flexible, focused and industry-relevant education.
Employers support the use microcredentials for upskilling, albeit with some reservations related to quality and impact on work performance (8–12% concerns about microcredentials versus 56–80% perceived benefits of microcredentials). Individual learners are seeking to enhance their skills, pursue career advancement or explore new areas of interest.
Microcredentials offer a flexible and accessible way to acquire targeted knowledge and skills. They can be a valuable addition to resumes or online professional profiles, allowing individuals to showcase their expertise to potential employers or clients. Although acceptance and recognition of microcredentials have grown across different industries, regions, and organizations, there remain challenges to their creation and implementation.
Lack of standardization is a significant issue related to acceptance of microcredentials. There is a vast array of microcredentials out there, along with a wide range of providers and issuers offering them, which makes it challenging to establish uniform standards and recognition. Since there are no uniform agreed-upon standards, microcredentials lack consistency in terms of content, quality and rigor, often reflecting the creators’ skills. Industries are creating their own specialized credentials, while others have more generic value. This lack of consistency makes it difficult to develop standardized criteria for evaluation and recognition. For these reasons, the default thinking in obtaining high-quality credentials tends to be traditional degree programs.
Marketing microcredentials can be a roadblock. Raising awareness of microcredentials, their value and how they differ from traditional credentials requires strategic communication. Since they are not yet well understood, the focus needs to be on establishing trust among potential learners and employers and highlighting credibility.
Implementation also presents challenges. The student information system (SIS) will need to be configured to track student participation and allow microcredentials to appear on student transcripts. Curricular workflows need to be adapted for microcredential approval, badging platforms need to be acquired for students to showcase the competencies they gained from microcredentials, and institutions need to determine how they will use data from these systems to gauge the impact of microcredentials on student enrollment, retention and completion (both for microcredentials and for progression to a degree).
Equity and inclusion must be addressed. Ensuring microcredentials’ content and curricula are inclusive and representative of diverse populations requires intentional effort. Another component of equity is providing access to in-demand skills that offer real career advancement opportunities.
Microcredentials have a cost, which can create barriers to access for individuals from marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds. While microcredentials hold the promise of increasing access due to their shorter length, credit-bearing microcredentials and noncredit microcredentials don’t qualify for federal financial aid. Even though the cost-to-complete is lower than it would be for a full degree, microcredentials face a structural barrier that blocks students from full access to this just-in-time learning format. Note that students can take microcredentials as part of a traditional degree program and receive aid.
Clearing a Path Forward
As is the case with all innovations, institutions must weigh the resource investment (staff time, marketing costs, acquisition or development of any new technologies to support microcredentials) against the potential benefits. We’ve identified five roadblocks. Here are some suggested strategies for mitigating these barriers.
- Lack of standardization: There are existing models for quality assurance that have been diffused throughout higher education. For example, in online education there are quality frameworks such as the Online Learning Consortium Quality Framework and Quality Matters. In student affairs, there are the CAS Standards. A similar voluntary framework needs to be developed for microcredentials, which will help foster trust and reduce some of the confusion in the marketplace.
- Marketing: Marketing must be tailored to different target audiences, leveraging multiple channels such as online platforms, social media, industry events and partnerships to maximize reach and impact. Articulating the characteristics of microcredentials to indicate they are in-demand, industry-aligned and address specific skill gaps can be an effective marketing strategy. Connect with relevant stakeholders inside and outside of the institution including faculty, students, employers, state government and regional organizations that focus on economic development.
- Implementation: Campus groups working on microcredentialing should include representation from the registrar’s office and the units responsible for core IT platforms (e.g., SIS, CRM, badging, learning management system). It is highly recommended that institutions take a policy-focused approach to microcredential development. At UW-Milwaukee, we followed the policy model developed by the SUNY system. Having a policy helps ensure faculty support, given that policies go through faculty governance. It also helps with implementation. For example, it is unlikely that a registrar will support transcripting microcredentials absent a policy.
- Equity: Microcredential development should include paying attention to topics that can provide a pathway to careers for all learners. Short-form learning can be used to advance equity, as indicated in a recent Burning Glass Institute report.
- Affordability: Students need access to federal financial aid to pursue standalone microcredentials that can then lead to additional stackable microcredentials or degrees. As a sector, higher education should advocate for aid for short-form credentials. While the proposed renewal of Gainful Employment regulations may make that an uphill challenge, widespread adoption of microcredential quality frameworks could provide the accountability mechanisms needed for the level of consumer protection assurance the Department of Education expects. Institutions can also focus on the state level and grant-funded microcredentials. Two examples: The State of Louisiana’s M. J. Foster Program offers scholarships that include short-form credentials and the UT System received a $1.5M grant from the Strada Education Foundation to develop microcredentials. (Also see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ brief on non-degree credentials.)
It is worth our institutional and collective efforts to remove these barriers. Microcredentials can do the following.:
- Enhance workforce skills
- Help students understand and communicate skills acquired through higher education (crucial at a time when the value of higher education is increasingly questioned);
- Create accessible pathways to degrees
- Build industry partnerships to meet a region’s diverse talent needs
Microcredentials are an innovation that can help our institutions adapt to changing conditions. They hold the promise of helping our students thrive in a new paradigm that embraces continuous lifelong learning and career changes.
Author Perspective: Administrator