ANALYSIS: ‘Microcredentials’ poised to disrupt higher ed as degrees lose relevance to employers

Survey respondents are demonstrating confidence in microcredentials–online training programs that take no more than six months to complete–as four-year degree programs often overlook job training.

'Grade inflation and efforts to help everyone ... attend college make it harder for employers to differentiate among applicants.'

Recent surveys show that students are relying on “microcredentials” to confer job skills that are often overlooked in four-year degree programs. 

Respondents are demonstrating confidence in microcredentials–online training programs that take no more than six months to complete–even as the volume of colleges and companies offering these programs can them hard to vet. 

A Mar. 3 article from Inside Higher Ed shares survey results from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and EdResearcher, guaging how students and employers feel about microcredentials. 

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The consensus is that students find value in these programs. Inside Higher Ed reported, however, that students have trouble defining “microcredentials” and finding the right program with often little more than a Reddit review.

Employers, meanwhile, are confused by microcredentials, according to the UCPEA survey. Though they express skepticism about their quality, they are still willing to collaborate with the companies and universities offering microcredentials to ensure that students’ training fits workforce needs. 

Reskilling. Upskilling. Certificates. Certifications. Badges. Licenses. Microcredentials. Alternative credentials. Digital credentials,” Inside Higher Ed writes. “So many terms. So little agreement on what they mean, least of all in higher ed.”

No matter what name they go by, these non-degree programs are usually offered online by a college or company. Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Ga. recently received recognition for its microcredentials from EdResearcher, which evaluates education programs. 

Students enrolling in KSU’s programs can obtain microcredentials through courses in fields as diverse as healthcare (Promoting Digital Health Literacy), media (Digital Storytelling with Adobe Premiere Rush), and science and math (Laboratory Safety Technician). 

Campuses like KSU often partner with an online learning platform to deliver microcredentials. Coursera is one platform that “collaborate[s] with 275+ leading universities and companies,” according to its website. Company-sponsored microcredentials include Google’s project management certificate and Intuit’s bookkeeping basics course

These courses appeal to students, Inside Higher Ed reported, because they are cheaper and faster to complete than a degree program. Examples from one platform indicate that they take anywhere from 42 to 412 hours and at a typical cost of $312 to $1,300.

But these programs are too new and unknown to replace four-year degrees anytime soon. The EdResearcher survey found that most participants are already degree holders who are using microcredentials to supplement their undergraduate and graduate education. 

Microcredentialing is still poised to disrupt higher education. For respondents to the EdResearcher survey, “nearly all … reported having learned something new,” according to Inside Higher Ed. UPCEA’s survey showed that “[m]ore than two-thirds … of employers want to be approached by a college to collaborate on [microcredentials],” which saw a “threefold increase since 2018.” 

With buy-in from participants and the lukewarm acceptance of employers, microcredentials could meet the needs, as one education policy professor told Inside Higher Ed, of the “entrepreneurs, foundations and policy leaders” who want to see “microcredentials … become the substitute for expensive degrees.”

In an interview with Campus Reform, EdResearcher founder and managing director Fiona Hollands suggested that employers are no longer confident that four-year degrees prepare students for the workforce. 

“Grade inflation and efforts to help everyone graduate from high school and attend college make it harder for employers to differentiate among applicants or trust traditional credentials,” Hollands said.

“People who earn microcredentials demonstrate initiative, motivation, and a willingness to go above and beyond by investing in developing their own skills and knowledge.”

Hollands hinted that microcredentials will also help in career fields that have not traditionally required a degree. “Microcredentials require less investment from the providers (and learners) resulting in more nimble responses to such changes,” she told Campus Reform

States including Florida and Texas have invested in community colleges and other educational programs that provide workforce training. If employers develop trust in microcredentials, they could join the host of training programs that are able to quickly fill shortages in key industries such as information technology and healthcare. 

[RELATED: PROF. GIORDANO: Community college is a better, more viable alternative for many students]

“Full degree programs take a lot of time to plan and to gain necessary approvals/accreditation such that this form of education cannot possibly keep up with technological advances that affect production and communication,” Hollands said. 

The youngest generations also expect to receive credentials on demand. 

“Gen Z and millennials are used to taking smaller, bite-size pieces,” a representative with UPCEA told Inside Higher Ed. “They were given rewards at earlier stages and milestones. [Higher ed] can have cake and eat it, too, with a degree, but we’ve also got to reward people for accomplishments along the way.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.