Levelling up: why microcredentials are disrupting professional education

4 min read

Elise Hodge

person computerAs the higher education sector has shifted its focus toward employability through skills development and experiential learning over the last decade, the acquisition and development of human capital has risen to the top of corporate priorities. A survey by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy in the United States found that of 750 hiring leaders in the US, 64 percent felt the need for continuous learning would require higher levels of education by job seekers in the future. 

Microcredentials have come on the scene as the answer to this need for lifelong learning. Microcredentials are short, low-cost certification-style qualifications that professionals study in order to upskill in a certain area. The modular, flexible style of learning has proven attractive to busy professionals looking for education opportunities that are relevant to their current careers, and that open the doors to advancement or a change in career altogether.

A study by Hollands and Kazi found that enrollees were likely to be white or Asian, highly educated, employed, and from 30 to 44 years of age, with the average age of completers being 36. 85 percent of course completers were reported to have held a bachelor’s degree, and nearly half already had a graduate degree. However, the market is expanding as it seeks to create opportunities for working professionals from all backgrounds, and provide alternatives to traditional degrees. 

The types of courses

Some of the earliest forms of microcredential offerings involved computer programming skills, but it has since grown far beyond that. Microcredentials help formalize hard skills like front-end web development, digital marketing, data analytics and social media, as well as soft skills like self-management, teamwork, customer service, leadership skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and customer service email etiquette, to name a few.

Universities are breaking new ground

Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of the first US colleges to offer microcredentials, partnering with EdX to offer a MicroMasters degree in supply chain management in 2015. The program follows the same curriculum as MIT’s in-person master’s program. The difference is that it only includes five courses and a final comprehensive exam, representing the equivalent of one semester of coursework at MIT. Students pay $1,000 administration fees and there’s no admissions process, which means if a student can do the coursework, they can earn the credential. Those who complete the short course successfully have the opportunity to gain entry into MIT’s in-person stream with online credits, making the degree more affordable. 

Other universities are teaming up to offer a one-stop shop for students to learn new skills. The University Learning Store was created and is delivered by Georgia Institute of Technology, UCLA Extension, University of Wisconsin Extended Campus, UC Davis Continuing Education, University of Wisconsin Continuum College, and UCI Extension. The University Learning Store enables students to buy courses and take the necessary assessments required to earn a ‘badge’ for the low cost of between $25 USD - US$150 USD, with a three-to-30-hour investment. The store also allows employers to purchase group courses that enable entire teams to upskill and earn badges to recognize their learning.   

Why colleges should incorporate microcredentials
There are three key reasons why higher education institutions should offer microdegrees. Firstly, this is an opportunity to try something new, in a growing market. Secondly, it’s a way to market full in-person or online programs. In a digital world where institutions must strategically allocate their marketing budgets, low-cost micro programs that generate student interest in universities may be a more attractive investment option than increasing spend on Google ads. Thirdly, microdegrees create an additional revenue stream, and allow colleges to not only attract domestic students or professionals, but also reach new international markets.

Colleges need to think more like businesses
When deciding whether to incorporate microcredentials into your offerings, it’s important to think like a business. ExtensionEngine, a for-profit company that helps colleges set up new online programs, encourages colleges to change mindsets from simply recreating an in-person course online to taking cues from successful online businesses. Colleges should first establish a business plan that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue, cost projections, resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. This plan should inform the creation of a microcredential that is unique and highly specific to what students want.

Some universities have even teamed up with Silicon Valley startups to create new credentials. The University of California offers five “specializations” through Coursera. Students finish specializations with non-credit certificates. While they can’t be transferred for a college degree, they can be taken for a cheap price, and relatively quickly, with most courses able to be completed within a number of weeks.

With microcredentials proving to be the hottest trend for professional development right now, higher education institutions can potentially consider them as opportunities for growth. Microcredentials will enable colleges to better serve students, graduates and working professionals alike, while also creating potential to reach new markets, and increase revenue.

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