The Rise of Credentials

Non-academic educational credentials – certifications, badges, etc. – have blossomed in recent years. Credentials have become popular with both prospective employees and employers. What has happened to make them as attractive, if not more attractive in some cases, than academic degrees? I’ll offer some possible answers to this phenomenon, which began to unfold in tandem with the Great Recession starting in late 2007.

First, let’s review some of what was going on in industry:

  • New employee hiring process became more protracted, taking several weeks longer than it did 10 or 20 years ago.
  • Qualifications among numerous candidates appeared to be similar, complicating decision-making for hiring managers.
  • An illogical mindset descended on managers: Only people currently employed are employable.
  • Corporations cut training and development budgets.
  • Managers decided that new hires had to be “plug and play” – capable of doing the job on the first day of employment.
  • Managers began saying they were unable to hire the people they wanted to hire because of a skills gap.
  • The long-term trend of employer-employee relationships as short-term and instrumental continued unabated.
  • It became a buyers’ market for labor, resulting in flat or declining pay for new hires.
  • Corporations viewed external resources such as higher education and credentialing organizations as people they could outsource their training and development needs to.
  • Non-academic credentials were perceived as adding clarity to the hiring process.

Next, let’s review some of what was going on in higher education:

  • Overall, stasis in curriculum and structure of undergraduate degree programs.
  • Long-running indifference to the needs of industry.
  • Many degree programs require students to complete two years of general education requirements before they could take courses in their major – courses which employers value most.
  • Little or no improvement in academic and administrative processes, despite competitive, economic, political, and social pressure to change.
  • Continuation of tuition and fee increases.
  • The view among higher education administrators that credentialing was beneath the college or university.

It appears that industry’s perception of new graduates’ skills and capabilities changed during the Great Recession. At the same time, higher education largely failed to recognize and respond to the new perceptions and interests of students, employers, and payers. Credentialing organizations recognized the changing landscape and quickly filled the void.

Will credentialing remain popular with potential employees and employers? Nobody knows. If it does, it will undermine the already-declining population of undergraduate and graduate students that higher education institutions seek to enroll. Even if the popularity of credentialing declines, it serves a need and is likely here to stay. What, then, must higher education do to assure that it fulfills the needs and desires of students, employers, and payers?

Higher education is a long-lead-time activity. Four, five, or six years to complete an undergraduate degree; two or three years to complete a master’s degree; four , six, or eight years to complete a Ph.D. degree. While higher education administrators recognize the importance of reducing the time to complete an undergraduate degree (and associated costs for payers), they remain fixated on 4 years at the appropriate duration. Does this tradition still serve students, employers, and payers?

Long-lead times are nearly always problematic. By the time something has been completed, the need for that something may have changed; usually, it is diminished. Also, long lead-times introduce many opportunities for defects and other problems. For higher education, this means that the knowledge areas in demand Year 1 may have shifted in important ways by Year 4, leaving new graduates unprepared.

Long lead-times contain massive amounts of queue (idle) time. What can be done during that queue time that is fun, educational, productive, and marketable for students? A creative university administration would offer to students the ability to earn credentials between semesters and during the summer, thereby enabling students to complete a degree and earn several different credentials. Or, they could reduce the time to graduation by having students test out of 30 or more general education credits.

The point is, universities hope to instill curiosity and lifelong learning in students. It must do the same for itself.

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