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Micro-Credentials: The New Enrollment Funnel for Tomorrow’s University

Written by: Krysia Lazarewicz
Published on: Jul 17, 2023

Photo credit: kunakorn/Adobe Stock

Stackable credentials—expandable qualifications, often parts of educational sequences—have become a critical pathway for learners to advance their careers, gain higher pay, and display competency in a shorter timeframe than full degree programs allow. These credentials—also known as micro-credentials, certificates, digital badges, and nanodegrees—are valuable signals for employers, especially since the COVID pandemic.

When asked in 2019 how open they were to hiring candidates with education alternatives in place of a college degree, only 20% of employers selected digital badges as something they would consider. Fast forward to 2021, 54% of employers said they view micro-credentials as extremely/very important. Micro-credentials play a big role in the minds of learners too. Those looking to gain new skills quickly on a more lenient schedule choose micro-credentials in today’s fast-paced, often unstable, employment market. Labor gaps are pronounced, and developing expertise in focused, in-demand areas provides stability.

In this article, Krysia Lazarewicz, Vice President of Business Development at Wiley University Services, discusses the importance of credentials for learners and employers and explores how universities can evolve to meet their needs.

These are challenging times for employees. The pressure to stand out and get ahead in the job market is intense, and the shift in how employers value different types of credentials is seismic. Many of us think of higher education as the most effective tool to ensure our long-term career success, but traditional degree programs may not deliver results quickly enough to ensure the immediate job security or advancement employees seek. Universities must meet learners’ needs for continued upskilling and training in ways that qualify them for the jobs they need today and prepare them for the careers they hope to forge tomorrow.

Micro-credentials offer an excellent bridge to career progression and security for students, and opportunities for higher ed institutions to reach more learners. Through micro-credentials, universities can directly meet the demands of learners and employers—now and in the future.

The Role of Companies in Modern-Day Higher Education

The world of higher ed can connect with both learners and employers by focusing on real-world results, communicating how their degree programs impact the workplace through hiring language, and ensuring their programs are accessible to those who need to develop their skills quickly and affordably.

Along with major corporations, universities can turn to micro-credentials to display marketable job skills that learners have mastered to employers. In this way, they can help bridge the gap between the academic world and the workforce so education is immediately valuable to diverse learners.

According to Strada Center for Education and Consumer Insights, micro-credentials are the education avenue of choice for many Americans looking to upskill. Employers have specific needs, and it’s hard to find trained workers. Some find that the degree model has not produced job-ready talent, so organizations feel they must create their own programs to recruit, train, and place talent within their own ranks.

As businesses seek to improve employee skills and diversity, micro-credentials allow them to bypass universities and confer their own qualifications. This bold move indicates that those in higher ed must rethink their credentialing systems and become nimbler in their approaches.

Still, while the popularity of micro-credentials is growing, some wonder if the skills developed through these credentials are only valuable in the short term. Higher ed leaders should ask themselves how short-term credentials can translate into full degrees that affect long-term career outcomes. Will we see degrees that are a repackaging of a set of micro-credentials?

At this juncture, universities can ponder how stackable credentials fit into their larger strategy and steer the ship toward a beneficial outcome for universities, employers, and learners.

Breaking Down Barriers With Employee-Sponsored Education

A considerable part of alleviating anxiety in the job market and filling labor gaps through schooling is realizing that education is not easily accessible to all groups. Many underserved communities miss out on marketable skills due to barriers such as affordability, time, and access.

Many major organizations have built their own micro-credential programs to improve diversity and remove obstacles to gaining the skills necessary to thrive in the workforce. For example, Google launched professional certification programs in data analysis, project management, and UX design. They provide 100,000 needs-based scholarships to cover costs, along with $10 million in grants to non-profits working with women, veterens, and underrrepressented Americans. Their hope is that low-cost programs can remedy unequal access to education and benefit underrepresented Americans.

Facebook is also attempting to support underserved communities with educational content and certificate programs. Through Facebook Elevate, Facebook partners with organizations working with Black job seekers and students, helping communities that may not have access to costly college degrees. Their goal is to train one million members of the Latinx community and one million members of the Black community by 2023, allowing them to master in-demand skills in digital marketing and connect them with employers.

Looking at these developments, universities must consider employers’ perspectives when developing programs, putting the focus on what competencies students demonstrate during their college careers that will lead to stable, lucrative occupations and keeping underserved communities in mind.

Incorporating Micro-Credentials Into Higher Education Strategy

While undergraduate and graduate certificates were once thought of as something that students would attain in addition to a bachelor’s degree, some learners are replacing traditional degrees with micro-credentials altogether. Many higher ed institutions have already turned to micro-credentials to support those who cannot commit to a structured, years-long learning program. It’s easy to see why. Fifty-one percent of online students list affordability as the most important factor when enrolling in an online program. Twenty-eight percent want the quickest path to a degree.

Because shorter-term credentials enable career mobility in less time than a degree allows, they are more attainable to those who need access to immediate upskilling. The fear in our job markets today reinforces the need for quicker credentials, as learners strive to keep their jobs or move into new roles as quickly as possible.

Choosing micro-credentials doesn’t mean that learners will never want to complete full degrees, though. Universities can create ways in which micro-credentials apply to degree programs so learners will have the option to get short-term rewards while still completing a degree at their own pace. Thus, it’s not necessary to think of micro-credentials and affordable online degrees as totally separate offerings. Instead, universities can see micro-credentials as a reliable funnel for learners into full online programs.

Not all micro-credential programs must be built from scratch. Institutions can create short-term value for learners while building long-term trust within the existing structure. For example, universities could break entire degrees into micro-credentials, letting learners know they can come back and complete their degrees when it makes sense while still granting them the immediate payoff for the work they have already done.

Further, higher ed institutions can work with employers who are creating their own credentialing systems. The skills learned through employer-sponsored micro-credentials can complement the pursuit of degrees, allowing students to use them as foundations for their university learning, aligning employer- and university-taught skills to grow desired student outcomes.

Right now, the world of micro-credentials may seem a bit haphazard. Universities and higher ed leaders can bring organization to the chaos by tracking the impacts of learning on careers and ensuring learners get credit for the work they’ve done and the knowledge they possess. That’s where a structured platform to track and award credentials comes in.

Tracking Micro-Credentials to Make the Most of Higher Ed

A platform like Credly can connect all stakeholders in the badging space. Credly is a front-end system to issue credentials and a back-end data architecture to connect various micro-credentialing programs, allowing learners to benefit from earning micro-credentials easier than ever. With Credly, your university can set skill attainment requirements and track learners through the process over time. Wiley University Services can help. Contact us to discuss how micro-credentials fit into your strategy.

About Krysia Lazarewicz

As Vice President of Business Development at Wiley University Services, Krysia leads a team responsible for developing long-term strategic partnerships that amplify, extend, and expand higher ed institutions’ missions. Her goal is to ensure that Wiley meets the institutions where they are and partners with them to effectively attract, recruit, engage, and retain students who can benefit from the learning opportunities available.

Krysia’s passion about strategic partnerships stems from her career focused on improving access and engagement in learning for all. Prior to working in higher education, she taught middle school math and science. Then, she developed best practices for content development for higher education purposes at Pearson, where she worked on the Mastering X platform before moving to Learning House, a Wiley brand, where she was SVP of Curriculum, supporting higher ed faculty in developing and delivering high-quality online programs.

Krysia holds a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Women’s Studies from Bowdoin College and a Master of Education from Lesley University and Shady Hill School’s teacher training course.