Navigating the Postsecondary Maze of Alternative Credentials

Reaching the end goal of post-secondary education is like going through a maze. Turn one way for a four-year degree and another for alternative credentials. But the path for alternative credentials isn’t straight – there are turns for certificates, certifications, and licenses. The best way through the maze for nontraditional students is to understand how they fit into the student population along with the types and purposes of alternative credentials.

When defining nontraditional students, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report A Primer on the College Student Journey says:
• Students over age 26 are 31 percent of the undergraduate population
• Students who study part time are 37 percent
• 20 percent of Americans have some college credit but no degree

Among these nontraditional students are military personnel, veterans who are transitioning from active duty to civilian life, workers who want to change careers, and working parents who want to improve their lives with a better job. Of the credentials earned by this group in 2015, 48 percent were bachelor’s degrees, 26 percent were associate degrees and 25 percent were certificates.

The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences states that certificates have become important as an alternative credential in recent years, and the number of certificates awarded has grown significantly. From 2000 to 2013 the number of certificates awarded increased by 73 percent, compared to a 49 percent increase for the number of bachelor’s degrees.

Certificates are common credentials for occupations that require specific skills, such as health care, business, information technology and manufacturing. Both degree-granting schools and nondegree-granting education institutions award certificates. They generally require class time that covers both academic and technical information.

The report also says short- term certificates, such as those earned at coding bootcamps, are valuable alternative credentials for students with no previous postsecondary credential as well as those who already have a bachelor’s degree but want to increase their skills. People who have earned alternative credentials at bootcamps are a varied group:
• The average age of students was 31
• 79 percent already had at least a bachelor’s degree
• Only 17 percent has less than an associate’s degree, and the majority of these had at least some college
• Bootcamp graduates had an average 7.6 years of work

Certifications and licenses are other common alternative credentials the report discusses. Certifications are different from certificates. Certifications are validated by an industry organization rather than by a postsecondary institution. Certifications are based on industry-defined competencies. Licenses are awarded by licensing agencies. They are based on both education and work experience and are often required to work in specific industries.

Certificates, certifications and licenses are viable ways for learners to acquire valuable skills and find meaningful work. They are one method of reaching Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025 to have 60 percent of the U.S. population hold a high-quality credential, a goal that is important to the economic growth and stability of the United States.

Alternative credentials are a solution for workers who continually need to update skills to keep pace with fast-changing technology. “Specific vocational skills have a shelf life. Some observers envision a world in which adults will respond to fluctuating economic pressures and employer needs by continually retooling their skill set through just-in-time, targeted, degree alternatives,” the Alternative Postsecondary Credentials report states. However, alternative credentials are just part of the solution to changing skills demands. They do not outweigh the importance and value of an academic degree, the report explains. “Yet employers routinely report that advancement in management, creative, and professional roles requires not only ongoing skill development but also critical thinking, communication skills, and adaptability. These more general professional competencies are rarely the focus of short-term skills-focused programs but are (or should be) the domain of degree programs.”