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While the majority of colleges focused on online, professional and continuing education have embraced alternative credentials, a significant number of those institutions haven’t made them a strategic priority.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a new study released Monday by UPCEA, the organization previously known as the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

“While a lot of institutions want this, they don’t necessarily all know how” to deliver alternative credentials, said Bruce Etter, UPCEA’s senior director of research and consulting. “Embracing it is great, but now it needs to be part of the strategic plan.”

The study, “Alternative Credentials: Business and Program Models,” was funded by a grant from Walmart and aimed to better understand the business and program models of alternative credentials, which include noncredit and professional certificates, badges, boot camps, and massive open online courses.

Between Aug. 23 and Oct. 3, 83 of UPCEA’s institutional representatives completed the survey. UPCEA, which says it has representatives at more than 400 institutions, also formed six focus groups with administrators from a variety of institutions, including those who oversee continuing education, extension programs, professional studies, online learning, innovation and partnerships.

Public research institutions represented 53 percent of the respondents, private research institutions represented 16 percent, comprehensive master’s institutions represented 13 percent and two-year institutions represented 4 percent. Almost half (49 percent) of respondents were from large institutions (more than 15,000 students), 37 percent were from medium-size institutions (between 5,000 and 15,000 students), and 14 percent were from small ones (fewer than 5,000).

Although 69 percent of respondents said senior leadership “embraced” alternative credentials, 20 percent of those respondents said that it wasn’t a key component of their institution’s strategic plan.

The market for higher education credentials is booming, and the number of unique credentials has increased dramatically in recent years—from 334,114 in 2018 to more than one million in 2023, according to a report from the nonprofit Credential Engine.

The colleges and universities surveyed by UPCEA offered an average of 64 alternative credentials each, according to the report.

As institutions grapple with falling enrollment, alternative credentials—many geared toward working adults and nontraditional students—are emerging as one way to attract more students. But when efforts to create or grow those programs are decentralized and not part of an institutionwide approach, it can hinder potential gains.

“If alternative credential programs are scattered throughout the institution, some may have a really effective model not only in developing the program, but also for the business model behind it. Others may have a really ineffective one,” Etter said. “Yet they could all be competing with each other for marketing dollars.”

Seventy-one percent of institutions surveyed don’t use the same business model (21 percent do use the same business model; 8 percent said they were unsure) for their alternative-certification programs, according to the report. Additionally, 74 percent of respondents did not know or were unsure how much net revenue alternative-credential programs are generating at their institutions.

“Without concrete numbers pointing to returns on investment for particular programs,” Etter said, “you can’t advocate for why it should happen, because it’s almost always a dollars-and-cents issue.”

Wilson Finch, vice president of initiatives at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, said in an email that beyond tuition revenue from microcredentials, institutions should look at how they “can support new student recruitment, progression to long-term credentials and, in states that have it, performance funding metrics” to help them determine how much they should invest.

“But because these questions cannot be answered and these alternative pathways have not been integrated into a new model for how the institution operates, there are challenges for scaling and consistency,” Finch said. “Leadership is needed to coordinate the different campus constituencies to find pathways forward that support the various needs of different departments and units.”

Another common gap in the design of alternative-credential programs, according to the survey, is employer input. While 28 percent of respondents said they always or very often consult employers in developing microcredentials, 37 percent consult employers somewhat often and 36 percent said they rarely or never consult employers.

“That’s scary,” said Shalin Jyotishi, senior adviser on education, labor and the future of work for New America, an education policy think tank. While he believes colleges are missing out on an opportunity “to have a tool to serve students and employers” when they don’t make microcredentials part of their strategic plans, he said making more money shouldn’t be the main goal.

“I want more colleges to offer alternative credentials to give people access to good jobs and meet labor market needs,” Jyotishi said. “The money is a side benefit.”

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