Who Will Benefit from Badges (and Other New Forms of Credentialing)?

The promise of "badges" and other new forms of credentialing is that they'll help give a boost to those who do not have college diplomas or other forms of official recognition for their skills or knowledge. But will badges and the like really be able to live up to that promise?

July 2, 2012

A number of initiatives and startups are hoping to offers ways to give people some sort of formal(ized) recognition for their informal learning – or at least for the skills they possess for which they don’t have official diplomas or degrees. Among them: Mozilla’s Open Badges project, the social endorsement site Skills.to, the soon-to-launch Degreed, and the open-to-the-public-just-today LearningJar.

There seems to be a lot of buzz about these in the tech industry in particular -- due to the high demand for workers with programming skills, due to the feeling that a college degree in CS doesn't always mean someone has those necessary programming skills, and -- of course -- due to the concerns over the high cost of higher education. And even if there weren’t headlines and hand-wringing about the “higher education bubble," these efforts do make sense: a college degree isn’t necessarily the best or only indicator of a person’s skill-set.

But a report released last month by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has been weighing on me as I’ve thought about the promise and potential for creating alternative forms of certification that would benefit more people more broadly.  (Inside Higher Ed covered the report's release here.)

The report examined the growing number of certificates that are awarded by colleges and universities – up 800% over the last 30 years. In 1984, less than 2% of adults had a certificate as their highest educational attainment; by 2009, the percentage had grown to almost 12%. 24% of all 23- to 65-year-old workers say they’ve attended some vocational, technical, or business program beyond trade school, and 75% of those say they earned a certificate. All this makes the certificate the second most common post-secondary award. 

Those with certificates do earn more than those with high school diplomas – on average about 20% more. But the key here is “on average.” Those economic benefits of certificates vary based on the field of study, the field of employment, as well as the certificate holder’s sex, race, and ethnicity.

And here’s where my concerns about some of the new initiatives around alternative certification programs come in.

Men benefit from certificates more than women do. A male certificate holder will earn 27% more than a man with a high school diploma; a woman with a certificate earns just 16% more than one with only a high school diploma. According to the report, “Men with certificates not only earn more than women with certificates, they also receive a larger wage premium from a certificate over a high school diploma. These differences show that certificates work well for men but give minimal labor market traction for women. Women seeking to use certificates for wage returns are typically better off pursuing at least a two-year degree.”

Part of this has to do with the fields of work for which certificates are awarded and in which people are employed; and the study found that certificates are often awarded in gender-segregated professions: auto-mechanics (99% male), construction (99% male), healthcare (90% female), cosmetology (91% female). As such, I can't help but think about certificates -- those awarded formally by schools and informally through other programs and social connections --in the tech industry.  According to the Georgetown report, men who hold certificates in computer and information sciences earn a median income of $45,461; the median income for women who hold certificates in the same profession is $29,986.

Of course, these certification programs are different in many ways from the alternatives that Open Badges project and the like are trying to create. (The certificates that this report focuses on are still classroom based, offered by community colleges and other degree-granting institutions.) But I can’t help but wonder how, in looking to formally recognize certain skills in certain fields in new ways, we may replicate some of these discrepancies over “who benefits” and "how much" that Georgetown identified in its report. How do we design these programs to address equity -- not just in terms of who can afford or who can attain a college degree, but in terms of race and class and gender.

The Georgetown report noted that one third of certificate holders also have an Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or graduate degree.  That's a factoid that reminded me very much of my experiences in one of Udacity's online classes, one of these new ventures that does plan to provide a different sort of credentialing.  I don't know about the gender composition of that class, and that wasn't reported in another Inside Higher Ed story on MOOC demographics either.  But I did get the sense -- echoed by Kolowich's story on the Stanford Machine Learning demographics, at least -- that many folks in there already had degrees in computer science. 

The Georgetown report concludes saying that "certificates work, but they do not work for everyone."  Will badges and these other new certificate programs offered outside institutions work the same way?

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Audrey Watters

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