The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is launching a new initiative to tackle the proliferation of alternative credential programs as higher education embraces new business models amid a changing landscape.
HLC’s Credential Lab will begin developing, testing and applying a new assurance structure for colleges and universities that analyzes the quality of credentials offered by third-party providers. The HLC accredits institutions in over 19 states.
“As the largest institutional accreditor, we have directly witnessed the rapid expansion of alternative credentials and the confusion and questions about quality and return on investment that has resulted—both for colleges and universities and for learners,” said HLC President Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley, according to a press release.
This is a significant development toward further legitimizing the rising use of low-cost alternative credentials among traditional and non-traditional student populations. Certificates and special non-degree credentials were the only programs to experience positive enrollment rates across every sector of higher education this past spring semester.
Rampant interest in alternative credentials in higher ed—and beyond
While the Association for Career and Technical Education lists the type of non-degree credentials as certificates, certifications and licenses, its scope continues to expand. One of the most exciting mediums for alternative credentials currently is micro-credentials. This month, the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE) launched 12-20 stackable micro-credential programs across 12 state colleges to reach its lower-income rural community.
“Everybody’s talking about micro-credentials, even those campuses that a year or two ago were saying they weren’t. They’re changing their tune,” said Kristi Wold-McCormick, assistant vice provost and University Registrar at CU Boulder and president-elect of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). “The ‘why’ is a big question when we talk to different campuses.”
Students who attain these alternative credentials will face a similar optimism in the job market. More than half of jobs in Texas require a credential somewhere between a school diploma and a bachelor’s degree, The Texas Tribune reports. Similarly, 71% of nationally surveyed employers said their organization is becoming more accepting of non-degree or alternative credentials instead of traditional four-year degrees.
“HLC has the vision and depth of experience in quality assurance, as well as an important learner-centric perspective. We are ready to build a scalable set of solutions to address a real need for quality assurance in our learn-work ecosystem,” said Melanie Booth, executive director of HLC’s Credential Lab.
The need for accreditation
With proper oversight and definitions, students can spend a pretty penny on credentials whose value may not be universally recognized, respected or understood.
The University of Southern California recently found itself in a legal dispute with over 1,600 former students who completed a now-defunct graduate certificate program. The students argued that USC promoted that those who achieved this non-degree program would still be granted alumni status. However, when the school retroactively changed its framework, it stripped students’ alumni statuses.