Collecting Credentials: The New Market for Just-In-Time Education

As more universities and alternate providers begin offering a wider array of credentials, both learners and employers are struggling to understand what any certificate is worth.
Collecting Credentials: The New Market for Just-In-Time Education

TODAY’S COLLEGE GRADUATES expect that their diplomas will be only the beginning of their educations—they know that, to keep up with changing trends in their fields, they’ll frequently want to seek additional education. But not only will they need to identify the programs and providers that will offer them the just-in-time education they require, they will need to determine which credentials will help them the most in their careers.

A credential is shorthand for what students know and can do—or should be able to do—with the knowledge they have acquired. The gold standard is a degree from an accredited college or university, but there are many other kinds of credentials. The problem is that it’s not always clear what those credentials represent.

University degrees generally are based on the credit hour, which is determined by a nationally accepted standard codified by regional accreditors and educational governing bodies, but most other credentials are not. While some industry certifications are subject to certain professional standards, in most cases a certificate or diploma is whatever its issuer deems it to be. This makes the credentialing landscape both confusing and very crowded.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Education—which only tracks a fraction of all the credentials awarded in America—found that 1 million nondegree educational awards and certificates were issued in 2013–2014. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.3 million adults held professional certifications and licenses in 2012, with some individuals holding both types of credentials. This amounts to one-fifth of the U.S. adult population.

The panoply of credentials is emblematic of the changing nature of the workplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American worker stays at a job 4.4 years; the younger the workers, the more often they change jobs. Many of those job changes are across industries, so workers must continually relearn and upskill to remain marketable.

But the proliferation of nondegree credits is driven by more than a fluid workforce. The entire nature of work has changed. As Richard Florida explains in his 2011 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, we now are working in a knowledge economy. It’s important for people to possess knowledge and be able to use it in creative ways if they want to become upwardly mobile—and remain employed.

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum make the point slightly differently in their 2011 book That Used to Be Us, where they distinguish between nonroutine high-skilled work and nonroutine low-skilled work. They note that the former encompasses well-paying jobs with significant employment stability but requires upfront and continued education, whereas the latter describes poorly compensated jobs that require less education but are highly susceptible to economic fluctuations.

It’s clear that ongoing credentialed education will be key for people who wish to remain employed and well-compensated in the future. Both universities and business schools seem well-positioned to provide such education, but they must offer shorter, more targeted options—and work on demystifying the credentialing process.


Some of the trends among today’s learners are spotlighted in a pair of articles from the September 14, 2015, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. For instance, among business schools, the demand for one-year specialized master’s degrees has grown three times faster than the demand for MBA programs in the past eight years. Between 2005–2006 and 2013–2014, specialized business master’s degrees experienced a 95 percent increase in degrees conferred, while generalized MBAs grew by a relatively low 31 percent.

In 2012, there were 19.1 MILLION Americans who held educational certificates.

At the same time, according to The Chronicle, the number of nondegree certificates awarded by two- and four-year colleges rose 150 percent from 2000 to 2014 and has intensified since then. By comparison, in that same period, there was a 59 percent rise in the number of associate degrees and a 47 percent rise in the number of bachelor’s degrees.

But it’s even more telling that universities increasingly are fragmenting their degree programs into smaller pieces to make the programs easier to digest and to give students incentives along the degree path. According to one of The Chronicle articles, “Colleges are … slicing credentials into smaller and smaller pieces that provide evidence of skills students acquire as they move in and out of college.” There is a “growing emphasis on awarding credentials for incremental advances in skills on a path that can lead to a degree.”

Alternative providers also are responding to the growing interest in short-term, just-in-time learning by offering more targeted programs with increasingly granular credentials. The result has been an upsurge in microcredentials, which focus on specific skills and do not require learners to make large investments of time or money.

The most typical kind of microcredential is a badge, which in some cases also can be referred to as a competency. The educational technology association EDUCAUSE offers this explanation: “Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.”

In 2013–2014, there were 452,533 educational awards that took learners between one and two academic years to complete; another 479,574 educational awards took less than one year to complete.

The problem with microcredentials is that there are no standards regulating what they mean; they have no common denominator or unit of measure. Hence, compared to degrees, noncredit credentials tend to be far less portable from job to job and far less useful across industries. In addition, noncredit credentials typically do not translate to academic credit, so they cannot be applied to degrees.

Learners and employers find themselves asking the same question: How can anyone know which program—and which credential—is the most valuable?


One possible solution would be for the industry to create a common framework that accommodates all credentials. The Lumina Foundation, a private foundation committed to improving educational opportunities, is working on just such a project. Its Connecting Credentials Framework, launched in September and currently in beta testing, uses competencies as the common element among all credentials. However, the project is still very much in the development phase and not yet ready to be applied.

One possible solution would be for the industry to create a common framework that accommodates all credentials. The Lumina Foundation, a private foundation committed to improving educational opportunities, is working on just such a project. Its Connecting Credentials Framework, launched in September and currently in beta testing, uses competencies as the common element among all credentials. However, the project is still very much in the development phase and not yet ready to be applied.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education has launched an experimental site to allow financial aid to flow to unaccredited providers, such as coding camps, that offer alternative credentials. However, at this time, the experiment is still small, very limited, and does not provide a common framework.

Hence, for now, navigating the sea of credentials is up to each employer and academic institution. The lack of a common framework or superstructure leaves most employers scratching their heads when a current or prospective employee presents them with a credential that they haven’t seen before.

For instance, if students have a project management certificate from the University of California, Irvine, what can they do? How does that certificate differ from the Introduction to Project Management Principles and Practices certificate offered by the same university but on Coursera? How do both of those vary from the Project Management Professional certification issued by the Project Management Institute or a Project Management Badge from Moodle? Finally, how do all of those credentials vary from or lead to a BA in project management from Ashford University or a BS in project management from Colorado State University Global Campus? This lack of consistency is daunting to administrators, employers, and students alike.

It’s not surprising that employers choose either to rely on the familiar or to trust a recognized brand. For example, in the IT field, Microsoft and Cisco certifications are widely understood and broadly accepted. Hence, many IT employers accept that Microsoft Certified Professionals have expertise in Microsoft products and can use them to address various business challenges. Similarly, top universities have built trusted brands so that even if an employer doesn’t understand a particular credential, if it is issued by a top-brand school, the employer is likely to accept it as an indication of its holder’s knowledge and skill.

For 8.2 MILLION Americans between the ages of 25 and 64, a nondegree certificate is their highest educational attainment.

In regions where there is close cooperation among employers and universities, credentials can evolve that are commonly recognized, valued, and portable within the local geographic area. Mary Walshok, a sociologist and dean at the University of California San Diego Extension, is a proponent of this process.

Walshok observed that in countries throughout the world, there are research university-employment sector nexuses that support each other through tech alternative forms of higher education that create paths from education to work and from work to education. Often these relationships result in credentials that are meaningful in those regions.

The challenge is to create a framework for credentials that will cross regional boundaries. In the U.S., universities have come together to develop a model of accessible, affordable, and outcomes-based higher education called the University Learning Store. The partners include the University of California, Irvine; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Davis; the University of Washington; Georgia Tech; and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which serves as the managing partner of the consortium.

In 2015, 4.7 MILLION American workers held a certification but no license.

Like most online retailers, the University Learning Store allows customers to shop at their leisure to purchase products—which, in this case, include academic materials, assessments, and support services for students.

As students demonstrate skills and knowledge, they earn credentials. The most granular credentials are verified competencies, which are akin to badges. Unlike most badges, however, they only can be earned if students pass an authentic assessment, which requires students to apply knowledge in real-life situations. University Learning Store coordinators ask employers to validate the assessments to ensure that they really test what employers want in terms of skills and abilities.

Students can mix and match individual verified competencies to meet their personal learning objectives, or they can master multiple competencies within tracks to earn certifications—or, in some cases, credit toward degrees. We believe this is what the future of microcredentialing will look like.


The alternative credential market is likely to grow for the foreseeable future, driven by ongoing changes in the nature of work, extended longevity for workers, and greater competition for jobs. It will be increasingly important for individuals to prove they have the skills that employers need and for them to be able to acquire and demonstrate those skills rapidly.

Colleges and universities already know how to develop master’s degrees and other traditional programs. The challenge they face now is addressing the market need for alternative credentials within a timeframe that is driven by for-profit providers.

For now, colleges and universities have a brand advantage, but that advantage is likely to be short-lived as boot camps, associations, industries, and other credential providers deliver products that become widely accepted by employers. Colleges and universities would be well-advised to engage their faculties now to deconstruct curricula in key areas. The next step is to rebuild them in modular formats that allow students to come in and out of learning whenever they want and in whatever ways they need.

Some statistics in this article were drawn from the Trend Generator maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, available at More information came from an April 15, 2016, post by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at For more information about the University Learning Store, visit

This article appeared in print in the March/April 2017 issue.

David Schejbal is dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison.