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In recent years, “microcredentials” and badges have been discussed as a means to certify marketplace skills and knowledge. There is even speculation that they will replace or erode degrees.

Yet such nondegree certifications aren’t new to higher education: Colleges already offer certifications in everything from digital marketing and data analytics to cosmetology.

What is new is that we are calling them badges and microcredentials and using them primarily to certify specific skills, such as cross-cultural competency, welding and conversational Spanish. 

So what are they? Microcredentials are certifications of mastery; badges verify the attainment of specific competencies.

No matter what we are calling them, they may be here to stay.

A new book by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt asks, How will America’s colleges and universities adapt to remarkable technological, economic and demographic change? Credit: Johns Hopkins University Press

Last year, some 68 percent of adults considering enrolling in education preferred nondegree pathways, up from 50 percent the year before, a study by Strada Education, a nonprofit focused on forging pathways between education and employment, found.

Certificates and degrees have existed side by side for more than two hundred years: Yale established the first certificate program for students who took only scientific and English language classes two centuries ago.

And while degrees and certificates seem destined to coexist, actual degrees from institutions have always enjoyed a higher status as the far more valuable credential — but several factors are now likely to reset the balance between them.

Over the years, certificate programs, both in technical fields and in the professions, have become commonplace: two in five working-age Americans hold a nondegree postsecondary credential. A study conducted more than 40 years ago found that 21 percent of four-year arts and sciences colleges and 28 percent of professional schools awarded certificates.

Today, they are even more common at two-year schools: In 2019, community colleges granted 852,504 associate degrees and 579,822 certificates.

There is also a growing perception that college degrees are losing value in the labor market, although it may prove temporary. Some marquee employers are no longer requiring college degrees for employment — including Google, Ernst and Young, Penguin Random House, Hilton, Apple, Nordstrom, IBM, Lowe’s, Publix, Starbucks, Bank of America, Whole Foods, Costco and Chipotle, according to a January 2020 report.

The declining relevancy of degrees grabs media attention: Numerous stories point to high-profile technology titans — such as Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Evan Williams and Mark Zuckerberg — who never graduated from college.

Public attitudes are also changing. A 2019 Gallup poll reported that a decreasing proportion of Americans consider a college degree to be very important — from 70 percent in 2013 to 51 percent in 2019. 

The reasons for skepticism about degrees are worth noting: 60 percent of respondents said people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt. At the same time, 36 percent agreed that you can get a good job without a college degree and that college is not worth the cost. These are exactly the same reasons most often cited for enrolling in certificate programs, which are now being offered by some formidable nontraditional providers.

Over the years, certificate programs, both in technical fields and in the professions, have become commonplace.

Periods of profound change like the Industrial Revolution and the present produce experimentation — and spark change. New degrees like the Ph.D. and the associate degree were established during the Industrial Revolution: The master’s degree was no longer honorary. 

Over time, established degrees became more specialized. Scores of new, discipline-based baccalaureate degrees came into being, most notably the Bachelor of Science, which was developed to help distinguish between students who completed a rigorous arts program and those who studied a lesser scientific curriculum.

Certificate programs multiplied too, particularly after the development of continuing education units in the late nineteenth century. New degrees like the Sister of Arts and Mistress of Arts receded into history.

We now live in a time that is more open to rethinking college and university credentials. We are witnessing experimentation with competency-based education, through which students earn credits by demonstrating skills instead of spending time in courses. We are also seeing discussion of free or reduced tuition, along with subscription pricing that lets students take as many courses as they like for one low cost.

Related: Urgency of getting people back to work gives new momentum to “microcredentials”

In addition, there’s the growth in noncollegiate educational providers, including museums and industry, along with new higher education-business partnerships. Coursera, the biggest microcredential provider, lets students take month-long courses to develop skills for higher-paying jobs.

The increasing need for new skills, the growth in workforce specializations and the global pandemic promise to generate a population seeking short-term credentials via programs that are generally discrete, one-time events.

Credentials awarded by industries and other nontraditional providers will be available whenever and wherever consumers want them and without concern about accumulating credits for degrees.

Last year, some 68 percent of adults considering enrolling in education preferred nondegree pathways

Colleges and universities no longer have a monopoly on credentials. Microcredentials, which are largely unregulated, will likely gain in currency, making higher education increasingly vulnerable to competitors.

Traditional colleges and universities will need to make a demonstrable case for why the education they offer is superior or risk the type of disruption that film, music and newspapers faced, and that led to video and music streaming and the decline of the newspaper industry.  Schools can learn a great deal about the mistakes these industries made.

Arthur Levine is Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Teachers College, Columbia University. Scott Van Pelt is the associate director of the communications program at The Wharton School. Together, they wrote “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future.”

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