Aug. 3, 2022
Interest in microcredentials has exploded among colleges, employers, students, parents, and higher education and workforce reformers of all viewpoints, and yet there is a lot we don’t know about them.
That’s why this year the Education Writers Association, the membership group for education reporters and journalists, organized a panel at their annual conference titled “Should Microcredentials Go Macro?”
I was picked as one of the panelists along with Christine Cruzvergara, Hanshake’s Chief Education Strategy Officer, and Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund at the Education Design Lab. Amy Morona, the higher education reporter at Crain's Cleveland Business, moderated the session.
Our job was to help journalists and reporters across the country with four goals:
- Understand the growth of microcredentials
- Identify fresh story ideas
- Learn about trustworthy data sources to assess the quality of microcredentials
- Gain new perspectives about how microcredentials specifically for community colleges
I wrote this article to capture a few things I’d like to share with attendees and other media professionals working on this beat.
Microcredentials definitions and 101:
We know that the supply and demand of microcredentials–also called non-degree credentials, alternative credentials, and short-term credentials–have grown substantially in recent years. Many learners and employers want a faster and more affordable form of career preparation.
Researchers and policy professionals are trying to standardize a common definition across government, academia, and employers, but we don’t have one yet.
That’s why nuanced journalistic coverage of this beat is so helpful for the public. However, there are a few standard things journalists should know when covering microcredentials.
- Microcredentials generally describe any credential shorter than the traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree and sometimes the 2-year associate’s degree.
- A “credential” is the umbrella term and shouldn’t be used interchangeably with industry certifications, occupational licenses, or certificates which are all different types of credentials. Diners like to know whether the “meat” they’re eating is fish, pork, or beef. Learners and employers want to know what type of credential is being discussed.
- Microcredentials can come with college credit or no college credit. Microcredentials can be embedded into 2-year or 4-year degrees or they can “stack” to degrees. Some microcredentials like industry certifications can even help non-credit students earn college credit.
- Anyone can benefit from a microcredential in theory. Some seek microcredentials as their first post-high school credential while others earn them to upskill after earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or even a doctorate.
- Microcredentials are issued to individuals by colleges and universities; non-profit organizations like industry certification bodies or licensing boards, some of which can be public-private organizations; and even non-ed focused companies (e.g. Google’s Certificate, Microsoft’s certifications, or HubSpot’s digital marketing certifications.)
- Journalists covering microcredentials probably have a broader goal of helping their readers understand what does and does not work when it comes to career preparation. In that spirit, they may also want to consider covering apprenticeships, community college-level applied baccalaureates, and bootcamps which may or may not result in a microcredential but are also important career preparation pathways. Two worthwhile flags: Bootcamps don’t just focus on coding, apprenticeships, which typically last two to four years, can be connected to degrees and are increasingly pursued at the K-12 level in the form of youth apprenticeships.
Trustworthy Data Sources for Journalists Covering Microcredentials
The good news is there are a lot of story ideas when it comes to digging into data around microcredentials, and there are lots of great analysts working on microcredentials.
The bad news is that we still don’t really have all the data we need. Here are a few things to know. This section could be a full report and maybe one day it will be.
- Data to assess demand: Colleges and training providers may assess demand for specific microcredentials by talking with local employers, but they also use “labor market information” (LMI) from public and private sources. Private vendors include Lightcast (Formerly Emsi Burning Glass), Chmura, and LinkedIn Insights. These vendors scrape real-time job postings to share insights around what credential and skills employers are looking for, among other data. Data USA by Delloitte is a great collection of publicly available LMI data. Some states like Indiana have also listed microcredentials preferred by employers. There are pros and cons to both direct and data-derived insights. I see the best training providers using both. As for assessing student demand, public opinion polls have affirmed the growing demand for microcredentials, but most training providers typically won’t assess consumer demand locally before creating a microcredential.
- Data to assess enrollment, completion, and demographics: How many students enroll and complete microcredentials? Are most of them part-time or full-time? What is their age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status? We don’t really know, not universally across all microcredentials. Colleges, companies, workforce boards, intermediaries like Coursera, bootcamps, and certification bodies don’t always disclose enrollment or completion data publicly. Some have the data and others don’t. Even within traditional higher education, non-credit microcredential-seeking students aren’t fully captured by public data sources (yet).
- Data to assess outcomes: Despite the hype around microcredentials, outcomes for these programs are mixed, and the public needs to know. Reporters should ask whether microcredential graduates get jobs related to their program of study? Are these "quality jobs" paying a local living wage (MIT’s Local Living Wage and the United Way’s ALICE calculators are good tools to determine this.) Are graduates’ wages higher than before obtaining the microcredential? Do microcredential holders utilize "stackable" paths later on? We have the least comparable data on microcredential outcomes. Some colleges survey students to get this data, some states match unemployment insurance (UI) wage records to student records to track microcredential career outcomes, and some credit-bearing certificate programs are tracked officially. The lack of microcredential outcomes data most often hinders education and workforce policy debates.
TLDR: Analyzing microcredential data is complicated, limited, and time-consuming. That’s where folks like me and my colleagues can help. Analysts can also help contextualize microcredentials against the bigger picture in education and workforce policy (like how they compare and contrast with apprenticeships, applied baccalaureates, bootcamps etc).
Reporters can also check out the Lumina Foundation-funded Non-Degree Credentials Research Network at George Washington University which maintains a blog and free listserv of 300+ researchers and analysts working on demystifying various aspects of microcredentials (Disclaimer: I’m on the Advisory Council).
Reporters could also reach out to philanthropies part of the Workforce Matters coalition to identify reputable sources they fund to work on microcredential. Organizations like Credential Engine help shed some insights on the supply and landscape of microcredentials.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug education journalist Paul Fain’s The Job newsletter and Workshift’s coverage – both of which are resources to help journalists, and frankly, anyone, follow and find data and sources about microcredentials.
Story Ideas for Journalists Covering Microcredentials
During my presentation at EWA, I promised attendees I'd share a few ideas for stories in this article. Here they are!
1) What happens to people who earn microcredentials from big tech and other companies?
There's a new kid on the credential providing block: big tech companies and other businesses that work mostly outside of education. Google offers certificates. Microsoft and Amazon Web Sevices offer certifications. IBM offers badges. Some are issued directly while others are in partnership with colleges, universities, non-profits, and other companies like Coursera. Do people obtaining these credentials get jobs or promotions? Do these businesses hire people who get their own credentials?What kind? Are they good jobs? Do they open the doors for a career or just a step stone job? Are the outcomes better than public college alternatives? Should colleges and non-profit industry certification bodies be worried about competition or see these newcomers as partners? What should policymakers, employers and students make of company-issued credentials?
2) What makes a college or university good at offering quality microcredentials?
This is the topic of research my colleagues and I are working on at New America, especially in the context of community colleges, and I'd love to see stories cover the institutional factors that enable a college or university to offer high-quality microcredentials that lead to great outcomes for students and employers (which, sadly, is not a given as we've seen). What kind of changes need to be made in terms of employer and wraparound service partnerships, staff upskilling, senior leadership, institutional policy, measurements, faculty incentives and hiring, government relations, and all other aspects of college administration to maximize the benefits of microcredentials while mitigating the risks?
3) Are more employers actually hiring based on microcredentials? How does the microcredentials movement intersect with the skills-based hiring movement?
To be fair, this story idea may be more relevant to the HR and labor reporters, but I think education reporters should address it using their lens and for their audiences: Demand and supply of microcredentials are up. We know colleges, companies, and learners are interested in microcredential pathways now more than before and that trend is strong.
So what needs to happen among employers to make hiring and promotion decisions based on microcredential attainment more common? A lot of us believe that employers need to get better at hiring based on skills, which is not universal.
An IBM-sponsored session at EWA 2022 titled "Investing in the Future of Work and a Skills-First approach" tried to take a crack at this question.
I along with the other attendees and the panel brought up a few things to consider:
- What applicant tracking systems used by HR allow for microcredentials to be seen by hiring managers?
- How does hiring based on microcredentials vary for small and medium-sized employers (500 employees or less) versus the large ones?
- What mindset shifts need to happen to hire and promote people who have microcredentials or other forms of skill attainment but NOT a degree?
- What do degree-holding employees think about non-degree employees getting the same job as them? Will it lead to resentment, pay inequity, advancement challenges later in life, increased odds of being let go in a recession?
In Europe and parts of Asia, especially in smaller countries, employers, labor groups, and colleges are often convened by centralized policy authority to get alignment on skills taxonomy, credentials, hiring practices, and labor relations. In America, it's tougher because we have a system of federalism and lack a unified federal agency in charge of all things education and labor. So what needs to happen to regulate microcredentials from a policymaking standpoint?
Here's a hook: This September, Opportunity@Work (Disclaimer: This organization was spun out from New America) and the Ad Council are convening 20+ corporate and nonprofit partners to make skills-based hiring more of a thing, and a lot of analysts believe that's big for people who have, seek and offer mirocredentials.
This is just a fraction of story ideas still left within the microcredentials beat. I thank the EWA for organizing our panel and look forward to reading more coverage about microcredentials. Questions? Feedback? Get in touch!
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