Earlier this week, I focused on how the pandemic altered how academics work. Now, let’s talk about how academics and universities are changing to prepare students for the workforce.
I’m drawing from new research from Coursera. In collaboration with market research firm Dynata, the company surveyed over 2,400 students and recent graduates and 1,200 employers about the rise of industry microcredentials. Many (89 percent) think earning one will help them stand out to employers and secure a job upon graduation—and 81 percent believe the credential will help them succeed in their job once hired.
I talked to Scott Shireman, Coursera’s global head of campus, and Lindsey Keith-Vincent, associate dean for research, outreach and innovation and director of the Science and Technology Education Center at Louisiana Tech University, about the results.
Here’s what they think this means for higher education leaders whose students are asking for more career-relevant degree programs.
Q: According to the survey, students are more likely to enroll in degree programs if they offer an industry microcredential, or in this case, entry-level professional certificate. How do you think the student mind-set toward college degrees has changed since the pandemic?
Shireman: The pandemic and digital transformation have fundamentally changed the way we work and learn. The modern workplace now requires new skills. Even in a tight labor market, employers are reporting a lack of skilled talent as a key business threat. As a result, there’s more pressure than ever on higher education institutions to produce graduates with job-relevant skills right out of the gate. Biden’s student loan debt cancellation proposal has put a national spotlight on a shift higher ed never stopped discussing: more students and parents are thinking critically about the cost of education, and more specifically, the ROI of their degree programs.
However, our research found that over half of students and recent graduates globally struggle to both decide what career to pursue (55 percent) and understand what employers are looking for (50 percent). Universities and colleges like Louisiana Tech have partnered with Coursera to offer microcredential programs that help students bridge that gap.
Among U.S. students and recent graduates surveyed, most agreed that earning an industry microcredential, or in this case, an entry-level professional certificate from top companies like Google, IBM, Meta and Intuit, will help them stand out to employers and get a job after graduation. In fact, 74 percent said that the inclusion of relevant microcredentials would influence their choice of a degree program at their university, with 66 percent reporting that the microcredential “counting as credit toward a degree” was their highest motivating factor.
Keith-Vincent: Since the pandemic, our students are coming to us with more information and more questions about what’s possible in relation to a personalized learning experience. They’re expecting more from higher education institutions, which is great. Students today know that they have more options for careers and living in general. Students and parents want to know and understand their options. This shift is forcing higher education institutions to be more thoughtful and responsive. It is causing us to be more creative about the curricular programming we deliver to learners and how it is packaged.
When we add credentials and certificates and other innovative learning opportunities, it is more appealing to our students who are able to use their financial aid and scholarships to support not only their degree, but also credentials and certificates aligned with in-demand skills and competencies employers expect.
A four-year degree is a commitment, and it’s certainly worth the time, energy and effort. If we can also add specific credentials that industry partners have indicated increase the likelihood of students being hired, it is so much more exciting and beneficial for our students.
Louisiana Tech is a premier institution—we have some of the lowest debt levels upon graduation for our graduates, and we have really high employability levels. Partnering with organizations like Coursera and Google for industry certificates and employment opportunities signals our students’ competency internationally, too. With supplementary microcredential programs, students know that when they graduate from Louisiana Tech, they’ll have more options with respect to both careers and quality of life.
Q: It seems like there is a shift happening right now among major employers where industry microcredentials are starting to hold more value in the hiring process. What does this trend signal about the future of entry-level job requirements in the workforce? Will a degree still be required to enter a new career?
Shireman: Employers’ expectations have definitely shifted. In some cases, employers are removing degree requirements. In other cases, hiring managers are expecting not only a degree, but a credential that signals that recent graduates have practical skills. Industry microcredentials are helping hiring decision makers solve two of their biggest challenges right now: identifying and validating applicants’ skills.
In our survey, 53 percent of U.S. employers said finding applicants with the specific skills needed for the job was the biggest challenge they face when hiring recent graduates. Eighty-six percent agree that earning an industry microcredential, or in this case, an entry-level professional certificate, strengthens a candidate’s job application.
In an ever-evolving labor market, human skills, or “soft skills,” like critical thinking, communication or teamwork, often developed in a liberal arts degree, still remain in high demand. Employers said human skills are difficult to find among recent graduates: 65 percent ranked those skills as most lacking, followed again by tech skills at 46 percent.
Universities and colleges can differentiate their graduate talent pipeline to employers by ensuring their programs are diversified and equipping students with core human skills and practical digital skills. In 2022, 39 percent have hired at least one candidate with a microcredential, a signal of a turning tide in skills-first hiring for employers as the labor market tightens.
Keith-Vincent: There is a huge employer need right now for competent and skilled staff, and that transcends a variety of occupations and fields. The employers we communicate with want to make sure that they’re hiring people into entry-level roles that have the skills and competencies needed for the job without requiring a year or more of additional training once they’re hired. As higher education leaders, we are partners to industry and our communities with an obligation not just to fill those immediate roles, but also to help cultivate the next generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers.
It’s important that we better understand what industry needs are and what skills and competencies our students need to be able to fill vacancies. The challenge is that the needs of our employers and the needs of society in general are going to continue to change quickly as our technologies improve. Continuous learning is going to become essential.
Students need the foundational skills of problem solving, troubleshooting and deep thinking that occur with academic programs at the university, but they also need those immediate skills and competencies associated with new technologies to be successful at specific moments in time. When a credential is created by companies like Google, Meta and Intuit, and those same companies are hiring candidates from their credential programs, we’re assured that students enrolling in these certificates and projects are gaining practical hands-on experience.
We need to have a broader discussion in the higher ed community about how we build and maintain nimble infrastructure to be able to address not just today’s skills challenges but the new challenges that arise as business needs and new technologies evolve.
Q: What advice would you give to university and college leaders considering offering micro-credentials to their students, particularly for local and regional schools?
Shireman: The skilled talent gap employers are experiencing is a huge opportunity for the local and regional colleges. I’ve worked in higher education for 20 years, and these institutions have always been the lifeblood of their communities. That’s more important than ever, but it looks a little different than it has in the past. Technology is rapidly changing our working world, and we’re seeing more universities and colleges partner with industry leaders to enhance their academic programs and make their students even more valuable in the job market and to the community.
Louisiana Tech is a great example of that vision coming to life. They offer so many opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds to learn in the way that works for them—in-person, online or in a hybrid format, as well as four-year degree programs or for-credit degree pathways. By diversifying its offerings, Louisiana Tech is helping students be successful individually and building a competitive local workforce that will help accelerate the local economy too.
This is a trend we’re seeing nationwide. Institutions across the country including Boise State, Hawaii Pacific University, University of North Texas and the Oklahoma State Regents of Higher Education supplement their degree programs with the Career Academy and industry microcredentials from leading companies on Coursera to offer a practical learning experience that pairs a student’s major with the skills and portfolio of work needed to succeed as a professional after graduation.
These industry microcredentials, along with applied skills training, create job-ready students while also building more resilient higher education institutions.
Keith-Vincent: People who are in higher ed have a love of learning and a passion for accessing new information in order to approach problems in unique and creative ways. The best way to find value in any new tool is to use the tool and see for yourself. There are a wide range of ways to apply these resources and really enhance the learning experience for our students as well as our faculty and staff. I would encourage university and college leaders—if their passion remains for helping humans be successful and helping members of their community meet their personal and professional goals—then take this opportunity to grow as a learner yourself, figure out what works for you.
This year we’re using courses on Coursera within our University of Louisiana system to offer professional development opportunities in partnership with Google for faculty and staff who want to brush up and learn new skills and earn credit or continuing education units for those hours. We are leveraging Understanding Research Methods by the University of London to offer a refresher for our Louisiana Tech University College of Education faculty, LSLAMP students, and our graduate students for professional development.
We’re also leveraging the Google entry-level certificates for our LA GEAR UP high school program that’s funded through the Louisiana Office of Student and Financial Assistance to give those students a leg up and an opportunity to go ahead and demonstrate skills and competencies in that program so they can pursue a four-year or two-year pathway after they graduate from high school.
Personally, I have embraced online courses and credentials to learn about so many topics that interest me. I’ve taken everything from Andrew Ng’s AI for Everyone course to Stanford’s Introduction to Food and Health to the Positive Psychology Specialization with Dr. Martin Seligman with the University of Pennsylvania. As a first-generation college completer from rural Swartz, La., I would have never imagined I would have such opportunities.
It’s just really exciting for me as a learner and a supporter of other learners to see what types of tools and resources are available now through partnerships with organizations like Coursera. You can bring the coolest, most engaging, most fascinating content that’s delivered by rock stars from all over the world right into your living room. It doesn’t replace what you get on campus at a university. It enhances it, and it gives us more opportunities to learn and be part of a bigger community and bigger conversations.