The Credentials Revolution

Alternate credentials as pathways to a rewarding career.
January 16, 2017
Certificates or industry certifications are no longer just for those with only a high school degree. Growing numbers of students at four-year institutions and post-bacs are acquiring certificates, badges, MicroMasters, and nanodegrees – often at great expense – to upgrade their skills, enter a new field, or bolster their competitiveness in the job market.
The variety of advanced certificates (earned through coursework) and industry certifications (which are based on demonstrated performance, usually a test) is staggering. Some, like those in African American Studies and Women’s Studies, are academic, but many are market-driven, specialized, and skills-focused. These range from certificates in animation and video graphics and arts management to health informatics and web design, and from computer software engineering and educational leadership and administration to corporate communication, film and video production, and teaching English as a second language.
At the pre-college level, non-college credentials, including occupational licenses, vocational certifications, and skills and industry certificates, have become an important pathway for high school graduates to obtain middle-skills jobs, like court reporter, dental hygienist, emergency medical technician (EMT), legal administrative assistant, and refrigerator, heating, and cooling technician.
Indeed, if the United States is going to meet its goals for post-secondary credentials, non-college credentials – including occupational licenses, industry certifications, and apprenticeship, skills, and vocational certificates, short of an associate’s degree – will play a crucial role. In a surprising number of instances, such as project management, general contracting, Microsoft Certified IT Professional, and Cisco Certified Network Associate, certificate holders earn higher incomes than most recent college graduates.  Also, for many high school graduates, certificates and certifications frequently serve as “stepping stones” to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
But what about alt credentials for undergraduates and graduate, professional, and post-graduate students?  Undergraduate and graduate certificates and certifications generally represent a less expensive, expedited path to a career.  Many are in fast-evolving fields without a traditional major or master’s program, such as coding, historic preservation or veteran’s services.
What do we know?
1.  Substantial numbers of bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and even doctoral degree holders already acquire professional or educational credentials other than a degree.  Alt credentials are simply the latest addition to an expansive (if not well recognized) credential ecosystem.
Professional Certification            Educational/License       Certificate
Bachelor’s degree . . . . . . .           29.5%                                  10.4%
Master’s degree . . . . . . . . .          44.6%                                  13.9%
Professional degree . . . . . .         67.7%                                  13.7%
Doctorate degree . . . . . . . .          38.7%                                  10.6%
Most advanced certifications are in business and finance, education, legal and social services, and nursing and other health care fields, and many, though not all, offer a significant pay premium.
2.  Alternate credential vary substantially in recognition by employers and in monetary value. Some industries, such as information technology and oil and gas, have clearly defined standards for certification. Others employment fields do not, and the value of the alt credentials is, accordingly, more uncertain.
3.  Alternate credentials offer the prospect of filling gaps in undergraduate education. Certificates can help students with mixed undergraduate records enter a graduate program. My colleague Marni Baker Stein has suggested that alt credentials could, potentially, help save the humanities by encouraging students to study what they love (and acquire the hallmarks of a liberal education, including advanced communication and abstract reasoning skills)  while also gaining marketable skills.
As Deborah Keyek-Franssen has argued, alternate credentials are entering the mainstream, partly because they meet genuine needs and in part because these constitute a potential new revenue stream, especially if the Department of Education expands access to financial aid.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with transforming student learning needs into revenue, but it’s essential that the benefits to the learner come first.
The current alternate credential landscape is incredibly fragmented, with credentials of varied value offered by a wide variety of providers with very different levels of quality, rigor, and student support.  Alongside formal academic programs, we have established industry providers, various online skills training programs (like Lynda.com bootcamps, and MOOC options. Variety – and variability -- are the hallmarks of this emerging ecosystem.
The proliferation of alternate credentials represents one of postsecondary education’s most notable recent developments. But whether the “credentializing craze" will be yet another educational fad or bubble, or whether it will persist because it offers undergraduates a more affordable, accelerated way to demonstrate workforce readiness and adult workers a way to continuously upgrade their skills and retool, depends on whether such credentials:
  • are tightly aligned with workforce needs and industry standards, and do not become dead ends;
  • offer transparent employment and earnings outcomes;
  • are subject to rigorous quality standards preferably by an accrediting agency or standard-setting organization;
  • are accompanied by robust advising and support services, to ensure that learners enter programs with a genuine value proposition that meet their needs, and receive the support they need to succeed.
Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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