Alternative Credentials Earn a Place in Higher Ed

The increase in the number of people seeking alternative credentials can be the result of many factors. In the past couple years we’ve heard phrases such as “half-life of skills” and “just-in-time education” as part of an education scene that is disrupted and/or alternative. Higher education is actually all of these. It is different from what it has been.

One major difference is that higher education is more inclusive than it has been in the past. It is no longer the domain of 18-22 year olds living in dorms taking classes on campus in ivy-covered buildings. It includes non-traditional age students, students from all socio-economic groups, students who work full or part-time, and students with family responsibilities. In addition to serving multiple populations, higher education has multiple forms. Students are on campus, online and receiving credit for prior knowledge. They are earning degrees and seeking alternative credentials. Alternative credentials have become an important niche in higher education and they meet the needs of a large portion of the varied student population.

The number of certificates and other non-degree education awarded in 2001-2002 was under 600,000. A decade later, in 20103-2014, almost one million were awarded, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). A 2014 United States Census Bureau study shows that 30 percent of the adult population holds an alternative credential.

Two main factors may have contributed to this increase in alternative credentials.

First, many adults find that they need to continually update their skills to be proficient at their jobs. Taking higher education courses to earn a certificate or degree puts employees in a position where they have the skills demanded by their changing jobs. “Sharpening their skills for the workplace,” a 2016 Pearson report, shows the understanding adult workers have of the relationship between education and their careers. Of adult learners currently enrolled or planning to enroll in higher ed:
• A majority look for an education provider that will provide useful skills and has knowledge for the future job market
• 72% say they will need additional education to keep up with advancements in their field in the next five years.
• 68% are likely to enroll in a degree or certificate program in the next five years
• 46% say their primary reason for deciding to go back to school or continue their education is to improve their earning potential

A second reason for the increase in alternative credentials could be the fact that higher education institutions are recognizing the value of these credentials as part of higher education. Many of the employees and nontraditional students who plan to enroll are seeking efficient, expedient ways to earn a credential. They don’t have the luxury of four years to take courses and earn a traditional degree. For the individuals who already have knowledge and skills gained in the job market, alternative credits give them an option to earn credit towards a program more quickly. Both Competency Based Education and Prior Learning Assessments give students the option to earn credits based on what they know and skills they have learned outside the classroom. A program or school that awards alternative credits won’t require a student to take classes for skills they have already mastered.

A University Professional & Continuing Education Association and Pearson survey of higher education institutions shows that higher education institutions are responding to the student needs and fast changes in the business marketplace.
• 94 percent of institutions offer alternative credentials
• One in five institutions offers digital badges.
• Digital badges are most commonly offered in business-related domains
• Institutions that work with and create programs with businesses value alternative credentials more than institutions that did not
• 64 percent of institutions either strongly or somewhat agreed that their school sees alternative credentials as an important strategy for its future.

Student demographics and expanding higher education practices are evidence that alternative credentials are a permanent part of the higher education system. Business that support their employees seeking higher education, whether degrees or alternative credentials, will benefit from employees who pursue education that makes them successful.