Apr 12 2023

What’s New with Microcredentials in Higher Education?

Increasingly popular certificate-earning programs offer alternative pathways for students looking to upskill, enter the workforce or earn a degree.

Undergraduate enrollment in higher education dipped for the third straight year in 2022, plunging the number of students at colleges and universities down 7 percent from 2019.

Those numbers now show some signs of stabilizing: A preliminary report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted a decline of just 0.6 percent in fall 2022. However, there’s little that points to a return to previous levels, and it’s no secret that boosting enrollment is a top priority across higher education.

Solving the enrollment crisis is a complicated and daunting task with no quick fix, but the confluence of two significant economic developments offers a good place to start:

That’s led to an explosion of interest in certificate programs — bite-sized educational pathways that give students proof of competency in the form of microcredentials.

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What Are Microcredential Programs in Higher Education?

The concept behind microcredentials is nothing new. For decades, vocational schools have offered what could now be called microcredentials in areas such as electrical, plumbing and auto repair. It was also more than 10 years ago that the Mozilla Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation led the charge to create the world’s first digital badges to attest to people’s skills and achievements.

In higher education, microcredentials first took off at institutions targeting adult learners. One of the main selling points is that they can be earned in less time than a two- or four-year degree. Microcredentials became a natural fit for nontraditional students with little time to devote to education; many of them already work full time or have families to care for, and they need to quickly turn their learnings into earnings.

Places like Southern New Hampshire University, one of the nation’s largest online undergraduate universities, leaned heavily into microcredentials and stackable credentials even before the COVID-19 pandemic. SNHU’s stackable credential program gives students what Chief Product Officer Travis Willard compares to a “pause button” on their education. They can earn microcredentials, enter the workforce, then come back to earn more microcredentials and work their way up to a degree.

Of course, the pandemic led more institutions to embrace the idea. Meanwhile, the pressure of the enrollment decline is causing colleges and universities to reassess the value of their product. All of that, combined with the overwhelming adoption of online learning, is pushing even traditional four-year colleges to explore microcredentialing.

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How Do Microcredential Programs Work?

Not all four-year institutions waited until the pandemic to join the microcredential trend.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee launched its noncredit-bearing, IT-focused microcredential program in 2019. TechEd Frontiers was born, in part, to fill employer demand in the large tech sector that surrounds the urban Milwaukee campus, says Phyllis King, associate vice chancellor at UWM.

“We’re always looking at what are the latest jobs, can we predict the future, and how can we help employers?” King says. “When we first started in 2019, we were really looking at upskilling and reskilling resources, not only for students but for employers.”

Workforce development is attractive to employers in a number of fields but maybe nowhere more so than in IT, and cybersecurity specifically. The nature of working in IT means that employees need to keep up with the latest trends and tools, and workforce development programs allow employers to give their employees opportunities to continue their education throughout their careers.

In cybersecurity, a massive employee shortfall has resulted in more than 750,000 open cybersecurity jobs nationwide. Employers are desperate to bring on people with any level of training, which frequently includes those without a college degree. Instead, those employees often have an array of microcredentials or certificates on their resumes, proving their competency and putting them in position to earn a job more quickly than in other fields.

“It seems like there’s a lot of interest from students in microcredentials that really do help them stand out in the workforce,” King says. “It signals to employers that they have certain skills or competencies and gives employers a little more confidence in hiring.”

UWM’s TechEd Frontiers offers noncredit microcredentials in cybersecurity, data analytics and blockchain technology, with courses in C# programming coming soon.

Phyllis King
We’re always looking at what are the latest jobs, can we predict the future, and how can we help employers?”

Phyllis King Associate Vice Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

What Are Credit-Bearing Microcredentials?

Two years after launching TechEd Frontiers and a year after higher education was upended by the pandemic, UWM administrators charged King and Laura Pedrick with leading a working group that would take the university’s microcredential program further. The goal was to develop a plan to incorporate it with existing academic offerings.

The team drafted a policy and created a toolkit for developing credit-bearing microcredentials, a program they say is modeled closely after one from the State University of New York system.

The credit-bearing microcredentials allow students to achieve certifications along the way to a degree while requiring the same academic rigor as the degree program itself. The microcredentials give students more flexibility in their paths to an eventual degree and a tangible marker of progress as they advance through their academic careers.

It also has the faculty excited, says Pedrick, the executive director of UWM Online. In the short time since the program was drafted, there has been interest from across the university, including from humanities programs not traditionally associated with microcredentials.

“What has intrigued the faculty is the ability to focus on discrete parts of their curriculum that are skill-aligned and use those parts of the curriculum in novel ways,” Pedrick says. “They can use microcredentials as a bridge to deeper learning and to help students understand the real value of what they’re learning.”

Among the certificates that could be offered at UWM are a sociology microcredential on understanding diversity and others that recognize the “very real skill sets associated with cultural competency,” Pedrick says.

The microcredentials UWM students earn are included on their transcripts. This makes them a visible part of their resumes as they enter the workforce and allows them to easily showcase exactly what they learned during their college careers, Pedrick says.

“There’s a recognition that all majors confer skills upon their graduates, and that microcredentialing can help students understand and appreciate the skills they gain,” she says.

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What Is the Technology Behind Microcredential Programs?

Because microcredentials in higher education started among adult learners, tools for remote and hybrid teaching are an essential part of any microcredential program. It requires a dependable learning management system that can handle asynchronous instruction and reliable remote teaching tools available to instructors, such as collaboration software, audiovisual equipment and a robust network.

Device accessibility can also be a concern for learners interested in microcredentials. So, universities with device programs that can offer laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots and other tech to their students are at an advantage.

At UWM, Pedrick says coordinating with the university registrar was an important first step in standing up the microcredential offerings. The credit-bearing microcredentials are transcripted, so they needed to be implemented into the student information system that’s already in place. Microcredentials also had to be “shoehorned” into existing learning tools.

While the TechEd Frontiers microcredentials are offered asynchronously, courses toward earning the credit-bearing ones are conducted like any other class, including face-to-face on campus. Tracking the paths toward microcredentials at UWM is “nested within our existing structures,” Pedrick says.

“I think it helps with resiliency of an innovation effort when you’re using, to the extent possible, existing tech components,” she adds.

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