The Future of Professional Credentialing ... in an Engagement Announcement

Three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

September 26, 2018

Can the future of higher education be discovered in the engagement announcements of a local newspaper? Perhaps.

This engagement announcement appeared in my local paper, the Valley News, this past Sunday (emphasis mine):

The future bride graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor's degree in anthropology and is currently pursuing a master's degree in public health. She is employed as a care navigator with Apple.

The future groom graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and is currently pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering. He has been accepted in the Harvard Business HBX CORe program and plans to start in November. He is currently working as a technical program manager at Apple.

They are planning on a summer wedding in 2020.

While reading this engagement announcement, I realized, like Angelica Schuyler, three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

Fundamental Truth No. 1: Alternative Credentials Are Gaining Social Currency and Professional Legitimacy

I don't know who writes engagement announcements. By custom, they read as if they come from the parents of the bride. It means something that this engagement announcement chooses to highlight the future groom's acceptance into a nondegree online program. The status kicker is not the subject of the program, but the brand of the institution.

Only a tiny number of future grooms or brides will ever be able to get a master's degree at a top 20 institution of higher learning. There are too few spots. The competition is too fierce to claim those spots. The degrees are too expensive. The opportunity costs of quitting work to study full-time are too high.

But there is maybe no upper limit on the number of future grooms and brides that can receive online and self-paced alternative credentials from institutions with global brands. The HBX CORe program that future groom Brian has been accepted into costs $1,950. It runs from Nov. 27, 2018, to March 7, 2019. It will take him between 10 and 12 hours per week.

We should also take note of the fact that the future groom works for Apple. (As does the future bride.) This announcement seems like a clear signal that Apple at least puts a value on this alternative credential among its current, and perhaps prospective, employees. My guess is that Apple is not alone.

Fundamental Truth No. 2: This Is a Huge Threat to the Many

Will relatively inexpensive online alternative credentialing programs from globally branded institutions replace traditional master's degrees from regionally branded schools?

What will happen if future grooms and brides decide that a nondegree credential from a high-status institution is more valuable in the career-building market (and perhaps marriage market) than a diploma from a regionally branded institution?

We are not yet at this point. As the wedding announcement itself indicates, the future groom is also "pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering." I don't think that a $2,000 self-paced fully online open-enrollment credential is analogous to, or a substitute for, an M.B.A. There is lots of daylight, however, between these less expensive nondegree online programs and a full master's degree. The online $19,000 Stanford LEAD program, one that combines asynchronous and synchronous learning in a heavily facilitated and mentored cohort, might be in that sweet spot.

It is entirely possible that master's programs with regional (as opposed to global) reputations will figure out how to take advantage of the growth of elite alternative credentials.

A smart move might be to proactively make alternative credentials a complement to an M.B.A. A school could offer preferred admissions to anyone who has these degrees. Professional degree providers could differentiate by allowing matriculating students with alternative credentials from other institutions to move through a master's program more quickly and at a lower cost.

What schools that rely on master's programs to balance the books can't do is nothing. Alternative credentialing opportunities from elite institutions are only going to grow. An active effort must be made to turn these credentials into complements, rather than substitutes.

Fundamental Truth No. 3: This Is a Huge Opportunity for the Few

That alternative online credentials represent, in theory, a big opportunity for elite institutions seems obvious. What this means in practice will be interesting to watch play out.

How aggressive will top schools be in leveraging their global brands to build nondegree online programs?

Will the gold rush into alternative credential online programs occur only in professional schools, or will we see similar programs in the social sciences, the physical and biological sciences, and the humanities?

What are the risks concerning the brand, focus and opportunity costs for globally branded institutions to move into the nondegree online education space?

Will top schools create these nondegree programs on their own, or will they partner with OPM providers to derisk these initiatives?

However these questions get answered, it is clear to me that we are on the cusp of a significant shift in higher education. Alternative credential programs can scale to meet demand. There are no limits to the number of seats in a self-paced online program.

Status is always a function of scarcity. The more scarce something is, the more valuable it becomes. The reason that a degree from a top institution is so valuable is that it is so rare.

What happens when self-paced open online learning eliminates that scarcity? Will brand status be maintained by the core degree programs, enabling the open enrollment online programs to ride on those brand coattails?

So many questions from one local engagement announcement.

A toast to the future bride and groom that inspired this piece:

A toast to the groom!
To the groom!

To the groom!
To the groom!

To the bride!
To the bride!
To the bride!
To the bride!

To your union
To the union! To the revolution!
And the hope that you provide


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