How colleges in 3 states aim to help students better market their job skills

Awarding micro-credentials may help colleges better prove the value of their programs
By: | October 27, 2021
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A potentially groundbreaking model that will allow more college students to earn micro-credentials to market themselves to potential employers will be tested in three states.

Here’s the basic “credential-as-you-go” concept: College students will be awarded credentials, certificates or badges to provide employers with evidence of their new skills even before they get a two-year, four-year or graduate degree, says Larry Good, president and CEO of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, one of the organizations spearheading the new initiative.

“There are a lot of circumstances where learning happens that doesn’t get credentialed,” Good says. “It leaves the learner with less information to share with employers and leaves colleges unable to represent the skills their students have gained.”

The approach, which should also help colleges prove the value of their programs, will be particularly appealing to older adults who have returned to college to enhance their professional skills. These students, as most administrators know, often work and have families, so they may enroll and unenroll a few times before earning a degree or certificate.

About 36 million Americans fall into this “some college, no degree” population, according to statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The “credential as you go” initiative originated in 2019 at SUNY Empire State College. The college recently received a $3 million Transformative Research in the Education Sciences grant to work colleges and universities in three states to develop a national system of incremental credentials.

The ultimate goal is to improve academic and labor market outcomes for student. For example, a student could earn a credential or badge for a specific competency gained after taking a bundle of three to four courses, Good says.

“We’re now in a world where people are learning and working back and forth throughout their lives,” Good says. “Even if I, as a student, got a degree at 22, the odds that I’m done learning are close to zero. The odds that I’ll need new skills are pretty high.”

The three states—Colorado, New York, and North Carolina—will develop 90 incremental credentials at the undergraduate, graduate, and continuing-education levels at universities and community colleges. “Degrees remain a valuable piece of the ecosystem that we can now surround with smaller things that complement and supplement them,” Good says.

The initiative will benefit colleges on multiple fronts. First, Good says, it’s likely to reduce the number of students who drop out without earning any type of credential.

Also, colleges will become more flexible in their ability to meet evolving market needs and, in turn, attract a wider student base.

“It also gives them another way to demonstrate the value of attending their college—by being able to show a range of people getting credentials that have labor market value,” Good says. “Colleges can show they’re offering more variety and improving student outcomes on multiple levels.”

Nan Travers, director of SUNY Empire’s Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning, will lead the initiative, with a management team that includes Holly Zanville of the George Washington University Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy, and Good of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. The management team will be joined by representatives from Colorado, New York, and North Carolina and a large national advisory board representing postsecondary institutions and systems, industry, military, accreditors, philanthropy, and research and policy think tanks.

“Incremental credentialing is a significant, critically needed next step to build a fairer 21st-century postsecondary system,” Zanville says. “It just is not right that some 50% of students drop or stop out of their college or university—often with two or more years of college learning—with no recognition of their learning.”