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Digital grad cap and tassel

The University of Texas system has partnered with Coursera to reach 30,000 students in its microcredentials program.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images

As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. And now going big applies to microcredentials.

The University of Texas System, spanning nine academic campuses with roughly 240,000 students, is expanding its partnership with microcredential provider Coursera. The initiative announced last month is Coursera’s largest, aiming to reach 30,000 students with at least one course by 2025.

Microcredentials are small, buildable credits that help students earn certifications in high-demand skills such as cybersecurity. They’re not new—the State University of New York has had an expansive program since 2018, and Spelman College recently made headlines for garnering nearly $2 million in revenue with its own certificate programming.

UT’s partnership with Coursera, which works with universities providing online courses and certificates, began in December 2022. A pilot program included 3,000 students, who completed more than 6,000 courses.

“They’re voting with their enrollment, to start with—it’s an impressive sign of interest with the first semester alone,” UT system chancellor James B. Milliken said. “Everything I hear from students, from employers and others is they welcome this as an additional resource to prepare them for the marketplace.”

UT Doubles Down

The programming is part of Texas Credentials for the Future, an initiative within the University of Texas System and the state. It started as a task force with a Strada Education Foundation grant, which funds the embedding of microcredentials in undergraduate degrees through 2025.

“Employers are saying, ‘We need people with better skills,’ and universities are saying, ‘We have them,’ and they speak different languages,” said Kelvin Bentley, program manager for the initiative. “With microcredentials, it’s a part of an ongoing conversation to get out of silos and get back to the table to figure out how best to prepare students for the world of work.”

Bentley’s ultimate goal with the grant is to have 30,000 students go through the program—whether it’s one course or earning an entire microcredential—by 2025. Bentley said the grant has a strong focus on equity, with an aim of having 22,000 of the participants be students of color. There are also plans to include graduate students and alumni.

The success of the microcredential pilot program at UT led to a $2 million investment from the University of Texas regents in July and the expansion with Coursera in August. Google also joined the partnership, providing 500 licenses for students to access a Google career certificate.

The certificates are roughly four to six months of work, breaking down to three to six hours a week. The 35 microcredentials are largely tech-focused. The topics of the certificates include digital marketing activity from Google, cybersecurity from IBM, social media marketing from Meta and bookkeeping from Intuit.

Scott Shireman, global head of Coursera for Campus, said the focus on technology is due in part to the large demand for tech employees. Coursera also is looking to diversify its offerings, including a focus on the health-care industry.

Coursera was founded in 2012 as a platform for massive open online courses—better known as MOOCs. It eventually pivoted, partnering with government and universities, and launched its microcredential program in 2022.

Courses can serve as stand-alone certificates or count as a credit toward getting a four-year degree. UT Dallas’s business school, for example, is offering extra credit in courses if a certificate in skills like IT management is also completed.

Coursera’s Shireman and University of Texas officials emphasized that this partnership would not replace degree programs and is meant to complement traditional offerings.

“What UT is doing is making it part of its education; it’s not one or the other,” said Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “It’s the whole smaller modules of learning that can fit into a degree. They’re trying to make things stackable. If folks cooperate and collaborate, the long game plays out and both parties can win.”

The Next Phase in Education?

Microcredentials’ mass adoption has been slow, but the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a looming enrollment cliff and fading trust in higher education, have spurred institutions to explore solutions.

“The world tends to change slowly, then all at once; [institutions] are trying to make sure they’re not blindsided,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. “They’re aware and look at concerns of declining enrollment and if colleges are worth it—microcredentials are a potential answer to all this.”

And workplaces are innovating, too, even as they criticize institutions for churning out graduates who fail to meet their needs.

“I think one of the biggest trends in higher education over the last 10 years is the Googles, the Metas of the world getting involved, saying, ‘There’s a gap in the workforce; we’re going to help,’” Shireman said. “It’s created this moment in the U.S.”

There is much to consider when looking toward a major rollout for certificate programs. Hess said there needs to be a way to police microcredentials for quality, ensure mastery of skills and figure out the best way to track and stack badges.

“The hardest part is how to figure out someone completed the course and document that they have these skills,” Hess said. “This is addressing real concerns, but for that to happen, you have to figure out the mechanisms of coming up with coherent strategies.”

But Fong advised traditional institutions to lean into innovation, as viable alternatives have cropped up in the last few decades.

“They have to diversify revenues elsewhere with traditional students,” Fong said. “To award them certificates along the way, for me, it just seems a very practical thing to do. It’s essential for higher ed to look at innovation, because they’ve put their eggs into one basket and defended it well, but they’re no longer in the position to defend it if they want to survive or thrive in the future.”

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