From micromasters to nanodegrees

Over the last few years, higher education in the United States has seen countless pronouncements that the degree is dead and that “alternative credentials” are ready to supplant the core product of colleges and universities.

While the traditional degree market remains solid in the US – particularly at the bachelor level and beyond – and is seeing even stronger growth in other nations due to a rising middle class, there should be no doubt that the future of higher education here and worldwide is likely to be more ‘unbundled’ and technology-mediated and that it will include many new forms of educational credentials.

Interest and experimentation in this area is accelerated by a more competitive higher education market, strong college-level job demand and, in the US, the attention of a presidential election year in which the notions of free college, alternatives to the four-year degree and the private sector’s role in higher education are prominent issues.

To the extent that so much of the innovation in credentialing is not from accredited institutions, but rather from technology companies and non-institutional educational providers, there is a critical distinction to be made between the growing array of professional ‘credentials’ with, so far, undetermined market value and more traditional credentials that have the backing of the brand, longevity, quality assurance, accreditation and state approval of colleges and universities.

Savvy colleges and universities are increasingly innovating with new academic credentialing constructs, from ‘stackable’ certificates and twists on the traditional certificate, to massive open online courses or MOOC based programmes, experiments with digital ‘badges’ and IT bootcamps that carry credit.

Many of these innovations have been extensively analysed in other forums. Some of the most innovative new programme constructs from colleges and universities are fundamentally rethinking the dynamics of academic credit, competencies, faculty engagement and oversight and professional experiences.

New credentialing terms

Yet, even the largest-scale or most heralded of these innovations – take, for example, Georgia Tech’s Online MS in Computer Science or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America – largely result in the same credentials that have been offered by higher education institutions for centuries: degrees, certificates and diplomas.

As innovative, impactful and worthy of study as these models are, they are less ‘alternative credentials’ and more new modes through which to earn a traditional academic credential.

At the same time, new credentialling constructs and terminologies are emerging from both within higher education and adjacent to it. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched the ‘micromasters’; Coursera’s university partners are providing ‘verified certificates’; and New York University has refashioned its professional certificate programmes as industry-aligned ‘diplomas’. At Northeastern University, we have developed the ‘iCert’, an individually designed interdisciplinary graduate certificate.

Additionally, it is worth noting that non-institutional players are encroaching on the semantics of the ‘degree’: firms such as Udacity have championed the ‘nanodegree’; Microsoft in July launched what it bills as a data science ‘professional degree programme’; and Edevate and the DaVinci Coders coding school have trademarked the term ‘microdegree’.

Rather than job attainment, non-institutional credential offerings have, so far, been focused on skill acquisition and professional development. This strikes at the heart of most universities’ continuing education and non-credit businesses.

Indeed, it does appear that free and low-cost online offerings from various start-ups are affecting the traditional corporate training industry in the US and in other nations, both developed and developing.

Blurring the lines

The traditional boundaries are blurring between professional development, occupational credentialing and formal higher education.

This convergence is increasingly being enabled by technology firms (for instance, LinkedIn and Degreed); innovations in regulation and quality assurance (for example, the US Department of Education’s EQUIP experimental sites pilot) and partnerships between universities and various types of enabling entities.

Higher education institutions that wish to play in the market for new types of credentials – or simply defend their existing competitive position with respect to degrees and courses – must consider a host of issues related to strategy, curriculum, governance, accreditation and career services, to name just a few.

What should not be neglected, however, is that colleges and universities are not islands. They exist among thousands of peer institutions – and critically, within a broader ecosystem of employers, policy-makers and regulators and students. It is the preferences, policies, and consumer decisions of these other entities – which literally number in the millions – that will collectively shape the future of credentialing.

Given the great demand for alignment between higher education and the workplace, higher education institutions should be particularly aware of employers as early adopters, opinion leaders, arbiters of quality and co-investors in this ecosystem.

The core job of these new types of ‘credentials’ in virtually all their iterations is in certifying skill, ability, competency, job-readiness or smarts and potential. In hiring, the question is what credentials will employers see as reputable, reliable and useful in making decisions – hiring decisions that represent significant investments and risks.

Credentials factor into promotion and advancement decisions as well, not to mention being attached to internal and external training and professional development, or simply represent a marker of individual accomplishment, learning and identity.

Rather than launching new credential experiments in a vacuum, it would be even more powerful if higher education institutions could work in association with each other as well as in closer partnership with employers – perhaps even coalitions of employers – to more intentionally shape the development of the credential market and its academic and technological standards and semantics.

When the globalising and increasingly transnational dimensions of the higher education market are overlaid on these developments, the challenges and opportunities are even more interesting.

Whether regionally, nationally or across borders, a thoughtful, diversified and collective approach – particularly an evidence-based approach that separates the hype from reality – would lead to better outcomes for students, employers, institutions and governments alike in the new human capital century.

Dr Sean Gallagher (Twitter: @HiEdStrat) is the chief strategy officer at Northeastern University in Boston and author of The Future of University Credentials: New developments at the intersection of higher education and hiring, available in September 2016 from Harvard Education Press.