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Alternative credentials pose an increasing threat to the supremacy of the traditional degree as the key that unlocks a career path. But available options and student preferences haven’t solidified, and they’re evolving so quickly that it can be difficult to keep track of the increasingly convoluted market.

Inside Higher Ed's Deep Dive
Into the Credentials Landscape

"On-Ramps and Off-Ramps" examines the fast-changing market of alternative credentials and emerging pathways between education and work. Purchase the special report or download a free preview here.

A new report published last month by two researchers from Columbia University's Teachers College aims to ground discussions of the nondegree landscape in some numbers rather than the speculation and hyperbole that often surrounds it.

Fiona Hollands, associate director and senior researcher at the college’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, and Aasiya Kazi, the center’s program coordinator and researcher, concentrated their research on collections of massive open online courses packaged into specializations and micromaster’s programs. More than 3,000 students surveyed last spring were enrolled in six specialization programs offered on the Coursera platform and four micromaster’s programs on the edX platform between February 2017 and August 2018.

Specialization programs generally cost students between $39 and $79 per month, offering a certificate at the end of completion after a few months, but no academic credit toward a further degree. Micromaster’s programs on average cost between $900 and $1,000, culminating in the option of a credential that also serves as a ticket to apply for a full master’s degree, either at the student’s home institution or a different one. Free versions of the courses are also available.

Results on student demographics, motivations and preferences offer a look at the types of students who enroll in nondegree courses and hint at the potential for these offerings to play a vital role in improving Americans’ career prospects.

Close to 80 percent of respondents reported already having an undergraduate degree, and 40 percent also had a master’s degree. Only 16 percent of enrolled students had no prior degree, suggesting that massive open online courses appeal mainly to students with prior academic credentials -- perhaps those looking to acquire new skills or advance their careers in new directions.

Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and a close observer of the MOOC landscape, said the report bolsters his burgeoning theory that this market mainly appeals to students as a vessel for lifelong learning.

“It’s just more confirmation of the disconnect between a lot of the rhetoric that these alternative credentials are an alternative to college in that they might replace college degrees and diplomas,” Gallagher said.

The report’s findings around motivation lend credence to those theories. From a provided list of possible benefits, surveyed students most frequently indicated they’re looking to improve performance in their current job. Other oft-cited motivations included needing help to start a new business, seeking new knowledge and wanting to improve applications for new jobs.

The report shows that students enroll in MOOCs hoping that the substance of the courses will make them better at their jobs -- not purely as a résumé item that could lead to a promotion or a new job, “which takes perhaps more investment in something like a degree,” Gallagher said.

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Only 30 percent of the micromasters students and 40 percent of the specialization students said they planned to earn the alternative credential at the end of the course or program. One quarter of respondents said they would enroll in all of the courses in the series without earning the credential.

Students in these programs on average tend to be in their mid-30s, though the survey respondents included at least one specialization student who identified as 8 years old and one micromaster’s student who was 83. Nearly half of specializations students were white -- a much larger share than in the micromaster’s program, wherein only 30 percent of surveyed students identified as white. Students in both programs hailed from more than 100 countries.

Slightly more than half of the surveyed students were paying for the courses themselves, while 21 percent were enrolled in free versions. Seven percent of learners received financial aid from either Coursera or edX, and 5 percent of students had half or all of the course fees paid for by their employer.

A vast majority of surveyed students (more than 80 percent) said they gave up leisure time to work on courses, while the remainder said the courses ate up time that would otherwise be reserved for paid work, studying and family care.

Nina Huntemann, senior director of academics and research at edX, told “Inside Digital Learning” that the report reinforces the company’s plan to provide “modular, flexible credentials that provide career advancement.”

“What is encouraging from this report is that students are finding educational opportunities that are relevant to their current careers or desired career trajectory,” Huntemann said in an email.

"Inside Digital Learning" also reached out to Coursera for comment, but the company declined to comment because it wasn't involved in the report.

Hollands and Kazi plan to continue their research with a follow-up survey upon students’ completion of the credential program, and then another survey a year later to assess job performance. At the time of publication, most students hadn’t yet responded to the postcompletion survey, either because they hadn’t yet finished the cycle of courses or because they had no plans to do so.

Gallagher believes future reports could shed more light on the stackability of credentials into degrees -- a phenomenon that only started taking off after the initial round of surveys began.

“These microcredentials that stack into degrees are slowly beginning to remake the online degree market,” he said. “A lot of these motivations -- certainly the [return on investment] and the outcomes that students have -- could potentially shift.”

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