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college certificate programs
Janice Hammerstrom earned three certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, and now works as a machine operator. Credit: Source: South Seattle College

SEATTLE — Last June, Martin Chibwe, a computer science major, graduated from Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, a liberal arts campus with a hipster ethos that shuns letter grades and urges exploration (“We don’t tell you what to take,” its website promises). His computer science courses covered topics like programming, machine learning and artificial intelligence; Chibwe even did a project on recommendation algorithms for an online library.

But days after getting his diploma, and despite the big investment ($39,000 in student loans), he sought another credential to “stack” on top to make him more marketable. He enrolled in Udacity’s iOS Developer Nanodegree program, a five-course cluster from the online platform known for its techie skills focus. Cost: $900.

“I knew I needed help to land a job,” said Chibwe. In January, he was hired to develop apps at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology near Tacoma, Washington.

Chibwe’s experience underscores a new truth: The bachelor’s degree may be the classic pass to join the world of work, but increasingly it’s no longer enough. And that prompts a provocative thought: Could credentials replace traditional education? Do we need college?

We have entered a “prove it” economy in which codified skills are currency. It’s driving a revolution in how education is constructed, delivered, used — and credentialed. Even as degrees, from associates to doctorates, proliferate, they are joined — maybe trumped — by thousands of resume-worthy credentials from shorter, non-degree programs.

Half of recent college graduates are not using skills they learned in college at work; 86 percent are learning new skills outside of college.

The credentials come from many sources: traditional universities, online platforms like edX, trade organizations like the American Hotel and Lodging Institute and companies like Jiffy Lube and IBM. Content and costs vary. Some are earned in quick sessions; others take months. Programs may charge tens of thousands of dollars — or nothing.

Within the credential universe, you find badges and certificates (earned for completing a course) as well as licenses and certifications (which require an exam and must be renewed). Like a real-life game of Pokémon, people are collecting and stacking them — mixing, sequencing or combining — to show off their powers.

Related: Rate of increase in degree-holders continues to lag behind national goal

In March, MissionU, a new 12-month college alternative combining in-person and online learning, opened applications for its first major, Data Analytics + Business Intelligence. Students apply as for college, but once they begin, instead of parsing Chaucer or Pope, they will study subjects such as business writing and project management. There’s no tuition; graduates will pay 15 percent of their income for three years once they hit $50,000.

Adam Braun started the company as “an alternative for those looking for more career focus.” While students need higher education, he said, “what they don’t need is a system that tells every single person that they need a bachelor’s degree to thrive.”

Getting a handle on the number of credentials being awarded is difficult; government data-keepers count an educational certificate only when it represents a student’s highest level of achievement. That doesn’t capture what many people are doing: earning credentials even if they have a degree. And there is no count of badges. The best estimate is from a 2012 federal survey that found one-quarter of adults had licenses, certifications and/or educational certificates. But that misses the rapid rise of short-term online educational offerings over the past five years.

college certificate programs
After earning a college degree, Martin Chibwe enrolled in an online program where he received a credential in iOS mobile app development. Credit: Meryl Schenker

Certainly, the call for timely, narrow credentials is shaping a new way of thinking about education — as a combination of parts rather than a sum. Just as the record album gave way to the self-curated playlist, it is increasingly possible to buy and learn only what you need and want.

“Everyone wants more modular chunks,” said Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, which recently launched its MicroMasters program for that reason. Many people, he said, don’t want to spend time or money on traditional master’s degrees, preferring groups of skills they can use right away, such as business analytics or digital marketing. The job culture, he said, “is moving to smaller and smaller credentials and continuous education.”

Indeed, according to administrators, half of the more than 30,000 students taking an MIT MicroMasters in Supply Chain Management already have a college degree; 36 percent have an advanced degree. They want new learning to stack on top of what they have, and learning that can be joined later by still newer learning.

In other words, the credential is the new storage unit for skills. That means one need not complete a full degree all at once, or even from the same source. Agarwal envisions master’s degrees assembled from various universities, tailored to one’s needs. “Why should the content,” he asked, “all come from MIT or Michigan?”

Related: Trump has promised manufacturing jobs, but high school grads might want to seek credentialed “middle-skills” posts instead

It’s not only graduate and bachelor’s degree programs that are facing these questions. In fact, community colleges are driving some of the biggest credentialing innovations. Across the country, 20 of them are engaged in the Right Signals Initiative, a pilot project to break up learning into smaller pieces that earn students “short-term credentials.” These can aid job prospects immediately, or be used for a later degree.

For example, at South Seattle College’s Georgetown campus, the combination of three specific courses within the Professional Technical Education and Instructional Design (training for teaching online) degree program now yields an Adult Learning Certificate. Next fall, students will be able to earn similar certificates for course sequences within the Hospitality Management and Sustainable Building Science Technology degrees.

The campus is also embedding more licenses and industry certifications within its education programs. That approach appealed to Janice Hammerstrom, whose 1994 B.A. in international relations isn’t very useful now. After nine months of South Seattle coursework reading blueprints, using band saws and operating computer numerical control machines, she earned three certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. It landed her a job as a machine operator. Hammerstrom likes that “I could get something in shorter than four years that is more relevant.”

“What [students] don’t need is a system that tells every single person that they need a bachelor’s degree to thrive.”

Like Agarwal, Dan Dillard, interim associate dean at South Seattle, sees problems with the way colleges have traditionally conceived of degrees. “The higher education model is at a crossroads,” pressured by students’ tight budgets and demanding work lives, said Dillard. “If you go back to GI Bill days, students could attend college on the cheap. Before that, it was blue bloods.”

Community colleges struggle with the tendency of low-income students to drop or “stop” out. A lot of energy — perhaps some of it wasted — is applied to keeping them on degree paths. Yet, that behavior, long seen as a problem, may simply reflect how students up and down the career ladder now operate.

“We are watching the job market become more and more competitive, and working professionals need additional knowledge and skills,” said Susan Aldridge, the president of Drexel University Online. Yet, “they have child care issues, traffic issues; they have busy, challenging lives.”

It’s why Aldridge believes that “certificates and stackable credentials are the wave of the future.” She said Drexel has added 30 new online educational certificate programs in the past four years, many in niche areas like LGBT Health and NCAA Compliance. The certificates, as at other universities (even Harvard), can be applied toward master’s degree programs. In reality, said Aldridge, “working professionals may never come for a full degree.”

Related: A state embraces the idea that not everyone needs to go to college

The temporal structure of life — get your learning, then get your job — is no longer linear, but like so much in our world, looped. Like a shampoo-rinse-repeat cycle with an endless tank of hot water, the drench of “upskilling” has no foreseeable “off” spigot. What’s happening, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, is that employers want more hires who are not only “work-ready,” but also “training-ready, ready to learn more.”

A 2016 report, “The State of American Jobs,” conducted by Pew Research Center in association with the Markle Foundation, found that 54 percent of working adults believed it “essential” to get training to update skills throughout their work lives; another 33 percent called it “important.” Plus, 45 percent had gotten such training in the previous 12 months.

This is tightening relationships between educators and employers, with some programs specifically crafted for employer needs. Drexel has a new master’s degree for fall, 2017, in Quality, Safety and Risk Management in Healthcare. “We interviewed dozens of chief nursing officers, hospital administrators, insurance executives and asked what were the skill sets and knowledge they needed but could not get,” Aldridge said. Employers assured Drexel they would send the program 20 to 30 enrollments.

“We need to make all of these types of credentials more transparent and clear in terms of what they mean, in terms of competencies and in terms of how they connect with each other.”

Nowhere is the symbiosis more apparent than at South Seattle’s Georgetown campus. Nestled at the northern end of the Boeing Field airstrip, it is also near trains and a waterway that empties into a deep-water port — ingredients for a flourishing economy. The area is home to 700 manufacturers, from companies making cast-metal aerospace parts to Synesso, an operation that builds handmade espresso machines.

“We are in this industrial hub and we are very concerned about people, knowledge, skills and abilities,” said Holly Moore, the executive dean of the Georgetown campus. While the college feels pressure from employers “to train up this workforce,” she said, their students “don’t have the time or luxury to go to a four-year college” and often “don’t think of themselves as learners.”

Barriers to education — time, money, self-doubt — are real. But simple jobs are vanishing, and a rising dependence on technology in virtually every field demands more learning. A worker who wants to move from constructing buildings to maintaining them (“maybe the physical nature of what they do is wearing on their bodies,” said Moore) must confront gleaming structures with operating systems invented in the past five years. Building maintenance, she said, is now “a highly scientific field” for which South Seattle now offers a new degree.

Related: Graduates of four-year universities flock to community colleges for job skills

Even as colleges strive to blend relevant learning with proof of employability, they’re challenged by trade associations and private companies offering curricula not yet on campus. Udacity, which in 2014 turned its focus to tech training, last October offered a nanodegree in self-driving cars; the company reported 11,000 applicants for 500 spots.

In this new economy, education may also have an expiration date. That’s why, said Jason Tyszko, the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, employers have “less and less confidence” in traditional degrees. They want narrow credentials.

That’s what Coletta Teske found in 2015 when, after taking three years off in a decades-long career as a technical writer, she couldn’t find work. Never mind that she had a college degree and had written software manuals, even books. “Nobody looked at my resume,” she said. “No feedback, no offers for interviews, nothing.”

“We are watching the job market become more and more competitive, and working professionals need additional knowledge and skills.”

After a year of searching, Teske took free online classes through IBM’s Big Data University. Classes were difficult, but short; within a month she completed four. “I got a badge and I shared it on my Twitter account, and people came out of the woodwork,” she said, adding that, “having IBM’s name on there was important.” Teske, based in central Florida, is getting technical writing jobs again, including some from Microsoft.

Obviously, credentials help middle-aged and older workers freshen up resumes. But they are also useful to younger workers. A March 2017 survey by the Rockefeller Foundation noted that half of recent college graduates are not using skills they learned in college at work, and 86 percent are learning new skills outside of college.

college certificate programs
Examples of credentials that can be earned through programs at South Seattle College. Credit: Source: South Seattle College

It’s too early to know if skipping college and earning credentials instead will provide a viable career path. Companies want to hire people with specific abilities, but also want the foundational skills that colleges supposedly deliver. And they’re often unsure how to evaluate nontraditional qualifications.

Jonathan Finkelstein, the founder and CEO of Credly, is aiming to resolve that uncertainty. Credly creates digital badges and stores information about the competencies they represent. Even though staying current matters, badges should operate like a driver’s license, he said: “When you go to a car rental, no one asks you to re-take a driving test.” Skills earned through IBM training are verified, stored and hold value. The badge, he said, conveys that, “IBM says, ‘This is what you can do.’ ” Even so, badges are one species in an ocean of credentials.

It takes little imagination to see where this is headed: Thousands upon thousands of credentials, representing the skills needed for specific jobs, from greeting guests at a hotel front desk to using artificial intelligence to design software to working in a hospital as a nurse practitioner. Which are meaningful? Which most respected? Which providers offer the best training? The cheapest? Fastest? Most helpful online support?

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

The explosion of credentialing has spurred a movement to bring structure to this unruly set of offerings. Since 2015, a group called the Credential Transparency Initiative has been drafting a framework to enable anyone issuing a credential — from a badge to a Ph.D. — to let the world know what it stands for.

“[The job culture] is moving to smaller and smaller credentials and continuous education.”

That initiative — now a nonprofit called Credential Engine — has been funded by the Lumina Foundation (Lumina is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report) and is led by three groups: George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, Workcred (affiliated with the American National Standards Institute) and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale’s Center for Workforce Development. More than 90 employers, trade groups and educational institutions have signed on.

The goal is not to make a static list, said Bob Sheets, a professor at GW’s Institute of Public Policy, and a key leader of the effort, but to build a data framework from which app developers can make tools that will enable students to, say, search career paths to see how one credential provides a building block to another, and let employers answer the question: What skills has this worker been trained to do?

“We need to make all of these types of credentials more transparent and clear in terms of what they mean, in terms of competencies and in terms of how they connect with each other,” said Sheets. He likens it to standards that allow you to compare smartphones on consumer electronics sites. “You can search by screen size,” he said. While they differ, “there is a common definition for how you measure the screen.”

The task is not so much collecting data as structuring it so that those offering credentials can make information readable to data networks, explained Holly Zanville, strategy director at Lumina. A site like Expedia, she said, works because “airlines and hotels and car rentals have made their information discoverable.” Then app developers, she said, “make it useable.”

Ultimately, just as the travel industry has arrayed itself into niches, credentials will, too. “A high-end hotel doesn’t want to communicate with just any traveler,” said Sheets. “Everybody wants to be found by the right person.”

How eager will credential providers be to sign on and share? “Who will play?” asks Zanville. “Will Yale play?”

This summer Credential Engine will release a prototype app called Workit. The company hopes that software developers will then invent new versions. It is too early to know which apps will populate phone screens, but we can expect better tools to weigh educational investments of time and money.

What do credentials add, if anything, to your job appeal or earnings? It’s unclear. “Market behavior should over time shake that out,” said Carnevale. What the credential revolution may miss, he said, are other critical elements that make someone succeed at a job, like personality, work values or, even, interest.

“If you are not interested in material reality,” he said, “you will be a lousy geologist.”

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