Micro-credentials give college students more bang for their buck

Micro-credentials give college students more bang for their buck
© Getty Images

In the coming weeks, 10.5 million young adults will leave for the first day of college classes at a four-year institution. Only four million of them will graduate in four years. Of those, only 6 percent will believe that college prepared them for the workforce. 

Yet, students are borrowing more than ever to attend college: Tuition has risen by nearly 400 percent in the last 30 years, and Americans owe nearly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

Although a college degree is still seen as the most reliable avenue for financial well-being throughout one’s life, completing one and paying for it has become an undeniably risky venture. In recent years, attending college has become a high stakes gamble for 18-year-olds.


What should universities do to help their students graduate and find the return on the significant financial investment they are asking 18-year-olds to make? We are encouraged to “think big” to address thorny problems like this one, but I believe the answer is to “think small.” I believe the answer is a “micro-credential.” 

Micro-credentials are badges and certificates that signal specific skills and competencies that complement the “macro-credentials” of letter grades and the four-year bachelor’s degree itself. This dynamic model of credentialing has risen in popularity across the nation. For example:

  • The University of Arizona offers undergraduates the chance to certify themselves for attaining both soft-skill and technical skills in their academic programs;
  • Degreed, a lifelong learning platform, awards micro-credentials to over 3 million learners and partners with 150 companies to recognize these credentials; and
  • the American Council on Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT®) now issues digital credentials for workers to receive academic credit for workplace training and to share evidence of their achievements online.

Changing universities’ systems of measurement to include smaller credentials would help show employers what students have learned and what they know how to do.

Implementing a system of micro-credentialing is far less expensive than wasted human capital and defaulted student loans. It offers benefits to learners, businesses and universities. Learners have a greater understanding of what they know and a credible way of communicating their abilities and knowledge to an employer.

These credentials are also highly portable: Students retain their credentials if they change schools, and they can continue to add them with skills learned on the job, in internships or in volunteer positions.

More importantly, by using micro-credentials to signal to employers what skills they have acquired in coursework in order to win internships or jobs, students can begin leveraging some of the value they have learned through attending college before they graduate.  

Wharton School Professor Peter Cappelli makes a compelling argument that the skills gap is actually a skills mismatch where the worker has more or different education than the employer requires. Micro-credentials help mitigate this problem by giving businesses greater insight into an applicant's skills and abilities. 

Micro-credentials also give universities increased insight into the worth of their degree and the education they are providing. After implementing a system of micro-credentials, they can then analyze data to learn what credentials are valued in the workplace. This will create more transparency and may increase trust in these institutions, which is currently at troubling lows. 

It’s no surprise that many universities are resisting the micro-credentialing trend. Some in higher education believe additional quantification of teaching and learning is just another new administrative burden. Many professors subscribe to the argument that quantifying skills “trivializes” the transmission of knowledge. 

But how can those of us in higher education market undergraduate degrees that can cost up to $300,000 without giving students some more nuanced and clear signals of what they know, so they can convince employers that they are hirable? 

The shift toward micro-credentialing seems inevitable. The U.S. Department of Education has already developed a set of initiatives in credentialing and employability skills. 

Meanwhile most highly selective U.S. universities already offer professional development and certificate programs that measure knowledge acquisitions and skills. For instance, on my own campus, we award an average of 60,000 certificates each year. 

Why can’t we extend these same benefits to those who need the most help in the job marketplace: undergraduates looking for their first career job, as well as the millions of learners who have some college education but no degree?

After all, we are encouraging teenagers to mortgage their future knowing that just under half of them won’t earn a degree. It’s time we gave them something to show for their time, effort and money.

Anne Trumbore is senior director at Wharton Online, a strategic digital learning initiative at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.