One benefit of a U.S. based higher education degree, especially an undergraduate degree, is that a hiring manager knows a graduating student received a well-rounded education and likely achieved a level of mastery required to pass courses on topics as diverse as public speaking, English/writing, social science, physical sciences, mathematics, government, geography, history and often many more. This is in addition to the level of mastery the student achieved in their major program of study actual degree program, which hopefully aligns closely with his or her eventual employment role. Companies want well-rounded candidates with “in demand” skills and the ability to learn and successfully adapt to the existing and changing landscape of organizational structure.
One of the challenges for students is that too many of them across the higher education landscape do not finish their college degree, either in a timely manner, or they don’t finish it at all. Often these students don’t finish for reasons that do not involve academic reasons. They don’t finish due to financial reasons, family concerns, time/availability, and many other personal reasons. Often these students did prove a level of skills mastery based on the courses they did pass, but without the final diploma they cannot easily prove that to a hiring manager, and hence they are often not considered due to automated resume systems that discard candidates without a degree.
Given the high cost of higher education and the growth of so-called non-traditional students — who are now the majority — that do not attend college full time right out of high school, indicates to me and many others that higher education needs to change its model to better reflect and publicly acknowledge what students have achieved along their educational journey, so that students can leverage those skills in employment searches, while still striving for the eventual full degree. At our institutions, we are building stackable credentials, as well as investigating the opportunity of micro-credentials, or badges.
Stackable credentials go beyond achieving an associate degree, followed by bachelor, masters and doctorate. We believe stackable credentials must also include other achievement levels that are awarded as a formal “certificate” for passing high-stakes exams. The information technology field is awash in opportunities to include these types of exam-based credentials into a college student’s resume. An example is the opportunity to achieve a certificate in a niche technology area such as Cisco Certified Technician (CCT). This is a great example of a stackable credential a student could achieve on his way to achieving a bachelor of science in network engineering. The CCT certification is specifically for entry-level network engineers and requires students to prove entry-level skills in diagnosing, repairing, and/or replacing Cisco networking gear. These skills can be taught early on in a college career, even in the freshman year. This serves two purposes. First, it allows a student to start taking courses that directly relate to his career, in combination with the standard general education courses normally taken during the freshman year. This is beneficial to the student because many students become frustrated when taking general education courses because they don’t understand that those skills are required for higher-level courses. Giving those students a combination of general education courses along with degree related skills courses would help with persistence and student engagement. Second, this allows students to achieve an industry-recognized certification — assuming they pass the exam — early in their college careers. Students can use this certification to demonstrate proficiency to potential employers if they need to postpone their continued progress towards a bachelor degree and gain an entry level job to help pay for the eventual attainment of the full bachelor degree.
A question I hear often is “that’s great for Information Technology (IT) related fields where there are clear vendor-provided certifications, but these kinds of high stakes exams don’t exist for other disciplines, do they?” The short answer is yes; they do exist in many areas. Just a few of the exams include: Nursing Aides, Child Development Associate, Business Architecture, Real Estate, Interior Design, Marketing Institute, English for Professionals, Software Quality Institute, Retail Banking, Medical Assisting, Microsoft Excel, and many others. Now, many of these require you to take a specific state-mandated test, but the concept still applies. Colleges would do well by their students to incorporate these kinds of exams that lead to industry or state recognized certificates into their programs as part of their stackable credentials strategy.
Another concern I hear is that vendor-based certificates are not valuable because companies often might not use the software or product provided by the vendor. As a former CIO of a Fortune 500 company myself, I can confirm that I cared less what vendor certificate a person achieved, but rather than they showed mastery of the concepts required to achieve a vendor certificate. I knew if someone passed the Cisco certification exam, and my company used Juniper products, hiring a candidate with a Cisco certification would be preferred over hiring someone with no certification at all. I knew that they could learn the Juniper technologies because they had proven they understand the concepts.
Another concept is micro-credentials. We define micro-credentials differently than the industry standard certifications we discussed earlier. Micro-credentials can include such things as book keeping skills, business statistics skills, java programming skills, SQL skills, etc. These are often tied directly to what the student learned in a given course as part of the learning objectives of that course, but they can also include non-academic items such as public speaking skills or medical bedside manner. Colleges do a great job of ensuring that students prove a level of mastery required to pass a course that is made up of multiple learning objectives. However, colleges do a terrible job of translating these learning objectives into credentials that a hiring firm can evaluate and understand when trying to hire a student.
Usually, a hiring firm only sees the bachelor degree, and maybe the cumulative GPA of the student. That is hardly representative of all the skills the student mastered in order to pass the variety of courses taken throughout his or her college career. We have conducted tests with hiring managers where we provided sample micro-credentials or digital badges that highlight specific accomplishments for a student to use on his resume, authorized by the college institution, versus only providing confirmation of whether the student achieved a degree. Our studies showed that hiring companies preferred resumes that include a digital badge over the generic degree designations alone, primarily because hiring companies don’t know what specific skills were attained by a graduate since they almost never look at the curriculum, much less course specific learning objectives, as part of their transcript review process. Of course, students can put these specific skills on their resume, but having a micro-credential, or badge, verified by a trusted authority, differentiates a student both by allowing independent verification/support for this micro-credential — from the school or other organization — as well as giving the student a way to have his or her resume stand out from the crowd.
The challenge with micro-credentials is how to articulate the level of mastery achieved, without short-changing the credential. An example would be java programming skills. Did the student just pass the initial java programming course in the computer science department, or did they take a series of computer science courses all involving the use of java programming in increasing levels of sophistication and complexity of problem solving? Differentiating these different levels of mastery, and doing so with a level of transparency and measurability, is very difficult and is currently one of many factors holding back any adoption of micro-credentials. It is easier for hiring companies to focus on hiring completed degree holders, or specific high-stakes exam certification holders, rather than try to guess what an ill-defined micro-credential might mean for a candidate’s level of mastery.
The good news is there is work being done to help address the current shortcomings of micro-credentials. An example is the Mozilla Open Badges organization (www.openbadges.org). They are a cross industry consortium attempting to define the standards by which badges — e.g. micro-credentials — are issued by authorized organizations, and how individuals can display those badges with appropriate linkage back to both the issuing organization and the standards by which the badge was defined. A few organizations have adopted this open badges standard, including Pearson, edX, Educational Testing Service (ETS), and others. However, we are still at a very early stage of digital badges for consumer consumption and more work needs to be done in the sector to bring awareness.
We recognize that there is a need to get involved now to help shape the future of education in ways that could bring positive disruptive change to how education is attained, and dare I say, “be accredited,” to individuals, leading to improvements in lifelong learning attainment. In addition, with the adoption of eventual standards, the industry can move towards competency-based experience recognition, which will allow higher education to recognize these badges and utilize them to appropriately give new students “credit” for skills attainment. This could reduce the number of courses and credits students might have to take to attain a full degree, thereby reducing the overall cost of tuition, while also increasing the retention, persistence and improving graduation rates for the largest population of degree seekers — e.g. non-traditional students. This also happens to be the population that today experiences worse completion rates than traditional students.
We have all seen the rise of competency based learning models, but I believe the real way to scale competency up to its full potential is to also adopt micro-credentialing, or badging, models that give us a way of assessing competencies that don’t depend only on taking numerous assessment tests each time you want to move forward with your education.
I believe these two trends, while they might seem to be disruptive to higher education, can actually be a benefit to higher education and future students if adopted and managed correctly as part of an institution’s higher education strategy. This strategy just needs to be changed to recognize a combination of skills attainment at the course or even learning objective level, combined with adding in the attainment of credentials along your higher education journey, so that you constantly gain career-readiness benefits that are cumulative, not just a zero-sum game based on whether you attain the full degree or not.
Achieving a degree, once the status quo, is unsustainable in today’s day and age for individuals who want to both gain employment and maintain employment, because people have to constantly learn, re-learn, and communicate skills throughout their career. The emerging landscape of education demands a 360-degree approach to the overall learning experience. Adopting this approach to education would create a quality workforce that not only benefits employers, but also the overall economy. As we know, a quality, educated workforce adapts more quickly to change, which in turn promotes sustainable economic growth through the constant innovation necessary to respond to change.