The menu at the Henderson, Nevada, diner where Amy Nelson likes to take a break from work is notable for its side dishes, including caramelized bananas, cinnamon apples, and mushrooms and onions. Each can feed an appetite in its own right. Together with an entrée, they add up to breakfast.
That’s much like the radically new way Nelson and a small number of other pioneering students have been experiencing college.
First they get a credential in a skill they need, then another, and another. Each can quickly pay off on its own by helping to get a job, raise, or promotion. Over time, they can add up to a bachelor’s degree.
“Even if I chose not to finish, I would still have these pieces and I’d say, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ as opposed to, ‘I have two years of college’” but nothing to show for it, said Nelson, who works as an information technology consultant and hopes to move into an administrative role.
The concept, known variously as “stackable credentials” or “microcredentials,” she said, “almost seemed too good to be true.”
That’s one reason it’s been painfully slow to take off: Consumers have trouble understanding it. Even after Nelson began the program in which she racks up microcredentials while on the path to a bachelor’s degree, she didn’t entirely get it. Then she started stacking up high-demand industry certifications in subjects such as technical support, cloud technology, and data analysis while on her way to a bachelor’s degree in data management.
“I don’t think it really dropped on me until I sat down to update my résumé,” she said. That’s when Nelson realized that those certifications had already increased her value on the job market.
Now the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic is giving microcredentials a burst of momentum. A lot of people will need more education to get back into the workforce, and they’ll need to get it quickly, at the lowest possible cost, and in subjects directly relevant to available jobs.
Nelson is enrolled in the stackable information technology bachelor’s program offered by Western Governors University. Enrollment in the program has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, to 10,711 in May, from 4,410 in March, the online nonprofit says. The number taking microcredential programs from edX, the online course provider created by MIT and Harvard that also offers a microcredential program, rose to 65,000 by the end of April, a 14-fold increase since early March.
“People are looking for shorter forms of learning during this time. They don’t know whether they have two months, three months. They’ve lost their jobs,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. The nonprofit had the fortuitous timing to launch a stackable program leading to a bachelor’s degree in computer science in January and three more in May—in writing, marketing, and data science. It also trademarked the term “MicroBachelors” to describe them.
“The ability to earn a microcredential within a few months and improve their potential to get hired as we come out of Covid becomes much more important,” Agarwal said.
Surveys bear this out. A third of people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, or worry that they will, say they will need more education to get new ones, the nonprofit Strada Education Network found.
They don’t have time to waste. Among lower-income adults, who have already been disproportionately affected, one in four say they have only enough savings to cover their expenses for three months if they’re laid off or get sick, the Pew Research Center reports.
“They don’t have two to three years of runway to put a pause on their life,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, where Nelson is enrolled. WGU has rolled out microcredential programs in states including Nevada that supply certificates and certifications on the way to degrees in information technology and health care.
Affordability matters, too, Pulsipher said; WGU’s IT microcredential program costs about $150 per credit and edX charges $166 per credit for its MicroBachelors degrees. That’s far less than the average $663 cost of a credit at conventional public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, the US Department of Education says.
“No one planned for or designed for a pandemic, but it starts to heighten the differentiated value that comes from things like microcredentials,” Pulsipher said.
Agarwal reports edX signed up as many learners in April as it did in all of last year— it now has 30 million, worldwide—and a survey of the newly registered found that 11 percent were already unemployed or furloughed and trying to learn skills that would help them get new jobs; edX has said it will offer a 30 percent discount on MicroBachelors programs to students who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Even before the coronavirus hit, several providers were making a push for microcredentials. WGU and edX teamed up to create the program in which Nelson is enrolled. BYU Pathway Worldwide, an online spinoff of Brigham Young University-Idaho, has created stackable bachelor’s degrees in all of the subjects it offers. It calls them “Certificate First.”
That’s because students in these programs, and the others like it, first get certificates or certifications on their way to earning associate or bachelor’s degrees. Advocates say the approach can help not only people who need credentials quickly to reenter the workforce, but also reduce the number of people who leave college before finishing.
“If you were designing [college] from scratch,” said BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Clark Gilbert, “this is how you’d do it.”
More than a quarter of students in conventional college programs quit after their first year, when a degree still seems intimidatingly far off. For many, it is; more than 40 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates don’t finish in six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this. The center says 36 million people have dropped out with no degrees or certificates to show for their time in college—but often with student loan debt to repay.
Research shows that students run out of money or experience personal problems that sidetrack or slow them down. The longer they spend in school, the more likely they are to quit with no credentials at all, despite their investment of time and money.
Earning credentials on the way provides a series of rewards that may encourage students to persist. Even if they don’t, they’ll have something to fall back on that can help them get, or advance in, a job.
Agarwal likens getting a bachelor’s degree in this new way to climbing Mount Everest by first hiking to the base camp at about 17,000 feet and getting acclimated to the altitude before attempting to achieve the summit. Earning that first certificate, he said, is like reaching the base camp; stacking them into a bachelor’s degree, like getting to the top.
Early returns suggest receiving rewards along the way helps the so-far limited number of people who have already tried microcredential programs. Nearly 70 percent of students racking up industry certifications on their way through the edX/Western Governors stackable IT programs finish their bachelor’s degrees within two years, the university says. That’s in part because they also get 27 credits, on average, for earlier education or life experience, another way of speeding students through higher education that is available from a growing number of colleges and universities.
The concepts are novel, but there are signs that employers are responding to them. Some are endorsed by companies for career relevancy, or created in partnership with businesses. Many of the certifications students earn along the way, including in IT and health care, are already industry-recognized.
At BYU-Pathway Worldwide, officials there report, the proportion of students who drop out between their first and second year has fallen more than 20 percentage points, to 14 percent, from 35 percent, since the start of the Certificate First program.
“That early milestone—the early win—is so motivating,” Gilbert said. “Now they understand how education works. And if we lose someone, instead of being a dropout, they’ll have a certificate. Is it as good as having a bachelor’s degree? No, it’s not. But is it better than being a dropout? Yes, it is.”
That’s what Brian Salazar experienced. “It’s very encouraging every time you pass one of the certification tests,” said Salazar, who has already earned certifications in Amazon AWS system operations administration, IT service management, Linux, and several other industry cloud and network subjects.
An IT tech in Carson City, Nevada, Salazar had already gone to community college, but he said he had few job offers after getting his associate degree. Once he started earning the certifications, “I started getting lots of offers,” even without the bachelor’s degree he expects to finish this year.
Showing Skills to Employers
Certifications and certificates can also show prospective employers the specific practical skills students have learned, which is increasingly important when only 11 percent of business leaders in a Gallup poll strongly agreed that college graduates had the skills their businesses require. Two-thirds of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey said that students aren’t getting the skills they need for the workplace. Students don’t feel ready either: Only 41 percent say they consider themselves very or extremely prepared for their careers, a McGraw-Hill survey found.
Graduating with one or more certificates and a bachelor’s degree “has the ability to show employers that you have a breadth of knowledge,” said Karen Elzey, associate executive director of Workcred, which teams with universities to add certificates and certifications to bachelor’s degrees.
While both can be included in a stackable bachelor’s degree, certificates and certifications are different. A certificate is awarded by an educational institution upon completion of a course of study; a certification is given by an industry association or a union to someone who has passed a test to certify that he or she has the skills to do a certain job.
It’s no coincidence that the institutions furthest along with stackable credentials are nonconventional ones. Some traditional universities say they want to add them, too, but longstanding practices are hard to alter.
Some universities are trying to embrace this change. Many have programs that help students earn industry certifications in fields including accounting and manufacturing. The University System of Georgia in January launched what it calls a “nexus degree”—certifications that add to associate degrees that can then add up to bachelor’s degrees. The financial and enrollment challenges they now face also are pushing colleges and universities to seek new sources of revenue.
Conventional institutions that are working to come up with stackable credentials have been slowed by accreditation requirements, occasional faculty resistance, the need for certification bodies and academic departments to collaborate, and the difficulty of explaining the process to prospective students.
“In reality it’s proving a little more complicated than we anticipated,” said Shari Garmise, a senior vice president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and executive director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. “But people are starting to get it.”
There’s growing pressure on colleges and universities to speed the process of embedding certifications and certificates into bachelor’s degrees. That’s because, even before the coronavirus created new problems for them, traditional higher education institutions already appeared to be losing business to those quicker, cheaper credentials.
Nearly one in 10 undergraduates today is working solely toward a certificate, and more are pursuing certificates or associate degrees than are studying toward bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports.
More than 670,000 certificates were awarded in 2018, the last year for which the figure is available from the US Department of Education—up 117 percent since 2000. That’s cutting into a market for bachelor’s degrees that’s already suffering from a decline in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds.
And while consumers might not fully understand stackable credentials, many are increasingly recognizing that in some fields they can boost incomes with a smaller investment than a bachelor’s degree. For instance, workers with certificates in construction and other blue-collar trades often make more than liberal arts and humanities majors with bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown Center found.
A few miles from Henderson, in North Las Vegas, teachers at the Fredric W. Watson Elementary School also are earning stackable credentials—in topics such as communication, using data, and building leadership skills. Here the payoff is even more direct: Once they finish a certain number of hours, they get a $5,400 raise.
Teachers used to need master’s degrees to get that bump in pay. But those master’s degrees often focus on theory, and didn’t seem relevant to what was happening in classrooms, said Margaret Loveall, a fourth-grade teacher who gave up 12 credits short of earning hers.
The shorter credentials teachers are earning now are “very connected to what we do,” said Tricia Young, whose tidy first-grade classroom is decorated with students’ pictures of sea animals. Young has finished enough stackable credits to get one raise and is working on another.
Even with a guaranteed financial reward, however, it takes a lot of personal outreach to help teachers fully grasp this idea, said Brenda Pearson, director of professional learning for the Clark County Education Association, which administers the program. “I don’t think people really know what stackable credentials are yet,” she said.
Shifting so much attention to vocational skills concerns some higher education experts.
Not Quite as Good as a Degree
Short-term certificates “can be a positive force in people’s lives,” said Chris Gallagher, vice chancellor for global learning opportunities at Northeastern University and author of College Made Whole: Integrated Learning for a Divided World. But suggesting it’s OK for learners to stop before they reach a bachelor’s degree, Gallagher said—just because they’ve received some shorter-term credential—leaves them at a comparative disadvantage.
That’s because certificate holders who stop short of a bachelor’s degree may miss out on substantially greater earnings; a typical graduate with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1.19 million over his or her lifetime, compared with $855,000 for someone with an associate degree and $580,000 for a high school graduate, the economic think tank the Hamilton Project calculates.
By comparison, workers who finish a certificate make up to a comparatively modest $2,960 a year more, on average, than those with a high school diploma, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)
Lifetime earnings estimates for certificate holders comparable to those for bachelor’s degree recipients are not available. Some research, including from the public policy think tank Third Way, has found much less financial benefit from microcredentials that are not industry certified than from associate or bachelor’s degrees. The value of some certificates also fades over time as job demands change. And microcredential programs such as the new one in professional writing through edX provide certificates meant less for the workplace than for transfer to another designated university..
Back at her breakfast in Henderson, Nelson said friends have begun to ask her about the stackable credentials model. Their interest was piqued when she posted on Facebook how many certifications she’d already earned on the way to her degree.
“I had only been doing this for one year and I had all this stuff. It just blew my mind, so I wanted to share that,” she said. “To be the girl who was maybe not going to finish high school and now to have all these degrees, it’s sort of amazing.”
This story about microcredentials was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.
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