Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Operations Features
Gleb Tsipursky
Only a third of organizations have hybrid policies in place
Stephanie Ojeda
How addressing customer concerns benefits the entire quality process
Mike Figliuolo
Creating a guiding maxim helps your people think ahead, too
Melissa Burant
A way to visualize and help prioritize risks, actions
Scott Ginsberg
Addressing skill gaps and preserving valuable institutional knowledge

More Features

Operations News
Partnership to accelerate CAM Assist in the US
It’s the backbone of precision measurement. What’s best for you?
Enables better imaging in small spaces
Helping mines transform measurement of blast movement
Handles materials as thick as 0.5 in., including steel
HaloDrive Omnidirectional Drive System for heavy-duty operations
For companies using TLS 1.3 while performing required audits on incoming internet traffic
Accelerates service and drives manufacturing profitability
For processed protein products

More News

Matt Krupnick


Quality Control Concerns Grow as Students Flock to Credentials Instead of Degrees

Policymakers try to bring consistency to what ‘microcredentials’ actually mean

Published: Tuesday, December 18, 2018 - 12:01

When graduate student Atis Degro got an email about a George Mason University course in resilience last year, he had to look up what that meant.

He was also curious about the credential being offered for successfully completing the course: not a conventional degree or a certificate, but a “badge.”

“I thought, OK, this sounds useful,” says Degro, a 32-year-old doctoral student from Latvia studying applied physics. “I’m always eager to try new things.”

So Degro took the course and earned the badge that turned out to be a way to list his new skill in an online résumé with a digital graphic that looks like an emoji.

Such nondegree credentials have been growing in popularity. But as students invest more time and money in them, concerns grow about credentials’ quality control and value.

While there has generally been consensus about what a college degree represents, there’s confusion over how to define many of these new credentials and judge their usefulness for employers and job seekers.

“We do have a little bit of a Wild West situation right now with alternative credentials,” says Alana Dunagan, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit Clayton Christensen Institute, which researches education innovation. The U.S. higher education system “doesn’t do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Thousands of credential classes aimed at improving specific skills have cropped up outside of traditional colleges. Some classes are boot camps, including those popular with computer coders. Others are even more narrowly focused, such as courses on factory automation and breastfeeding. Colleges and universities have responded by adding nondegree programs of their own.

A statue of George Mason on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus in Fairfax, Virginia. The university offers digital badges rather than degrees or certificates for the completion of some courses. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

There’s not yet a reliable count of how many programs like these exist. One popular nondegree credential—the certificate—was tracked during a 10-year period ending in 2016; the number conferred by colleges and universities grew by 31 percent to 939,243, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition, some 4,000 colleges and other providers issue industry certifications, according to the Lumina Foundation, but fewer than one in 10 are reviewed by a regulatory body or accreditor.

Bad communication has created a sort of “tower of Babel,” in which employers can’t interpret what a new credential means, says Kathleen deLaski, president and founder of the Education Design Lab. At the lab and in colleges and other organizations, classes are being designed to reward students for the skills they learn. Companies need to be more active in designing these skills courses from the outset, deLaski says.

“We have not seen industry step up and say, ‘This is what we want,’” notes deLaski. “It’s got to come from the employer side.”

The fact that companies need trained employees is uncontested: According to the National Association of Manufacturers, more than three-quarters of U.S. manufacturers had trouble finding and keeping skilled workers this year.

Despite those hiring and retention concerns, industry appears reluctant to discuss the topic of policing new credentials. The National Association of Manufacturers declined to answer questions, as did tractor maker Caterpillar, which once had an in-house training program called Caterpillar University, and Amazon Web Services, which has teamed up with 19 Southern California colleges to train students in cloud computing.

“We do have a little bit of a Wild West situation right now with alternative credentials.”
—Alana Dunagan, senior research fellow, Clayton Christensen Institute

Like Caterpillar, other big companies have cut back on employee training, boosting the need for third-party courses. Toolmaker, Snap-on, trains its employees on its own machines; however, it “supports a common framework for credentials” to ensure quality.

In northwestern New York State, several colleges have started looking into how to offer training that large manufacturers in the region once provided, says Heather Gresham, executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Investment Board.

“Training and development are often the first place employers are forced to cut,” Gresham notes. “There are a lot of conversations about what we can do to develop the workforce.”

Not all the new courses are aimed at increasing clearly defined skills in manufacturing or computing. Employers report trouble finding job candidates who can communicate well and work in teams, which is among the reasons George Mason University administrators say they started the resilience badge class in 2015.

Some 4,000 providers issue industry certifications, but fewer than one in 10 are reviewed by a regulatory body or accreditor.

Students can choose to take the five-week course—three weeks in the classroom and two online—to improve their ability to face adversity and work with others, says Lewis Forrest, associate dean, University Life at George Mason University. Forrest notes the disconnect between what students generally learn in college and what employers need and says the badge could help with that—but only if employers understand what it means when they see it on a job candidate’s résumé.

“I still think there’s a way to go for employers to see it as something useful,” Forrest says. “I don’t think employers are at the point where they see badges as the trigger for hiring.”

Among the stumbling blocks for badges and other new credentials, also called microcredentials, is how to help employers judge whether a course has actually taught candidates a useful skill.

The rush to create new credentials is likely to lead to a flood of useless courses, says Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine, a nonprofit working to compile a database of every educational credential in the country.

“Everybody is scrambling to create microcredentials or badges,” Cheney says. “This has never been a precise marketplace, and we’re just speeding up that imprecision.”

Arizona State University, for example, is rapidly increasing the number of online courses in its continuing and professional education division, which confers both badges and certificates. According to staff, the division offers 200 courses and programs in a slew of categories, including art, history, education, health and law, and plans to provide more than 500 by next year.

The university has avoided quality concerns by asking the same faculty responsible for its degree programs to design the new skills courses, says Darcy Richardson, who directs the program. Companies and educators need to work together to come up with a way to protect consumers, she says.

“If an organization wants to grant a badge, there’s nothing stopping them from doing that,” adds Richardson. “It’s important for consumers to do their due diligence.”

First published Nov. 16, 2018, in The Hechinger Report.


About The Author

Matt Krupnick’s picture

Matt Krupnick

Matt Krupnick is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times and The Hechinger Report. He was a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity's State Integrity Investigation and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Education Writers Association.