The new wave of change in higher education is alternative credentialing. Already much is happening in this space.

The U.S. Department of Education is developing experimental sites to award financial aid for programs like coding boot camps (Dept. of Education, 2015, October 15); the Lumina Foundation is developing a Credentials Framework (Lumina, 2015) focusing on building a systemic hierarchy of credentials that would signify, in some more or less commonly accepted ways, what holders of the credential know and can do; and a group of top-tier institutions is developing an alternative credential “store” (Fain, 2015, August 14). In part, the interest in alternative credentialing is due to President Obama’s higher education goal to have “every American commit to at least one-year of higher education or post-secondary training” (White House, 2015) and to a corresponding call from the Lumina Foundation for at least 60% of Americans to “obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025 (Lumina, 2013). However, the need for alternative credentials is far broader than just goals set on high.

In 2005, the respected social scientist and founder of Public Agenda Daniel Yankelovich wrote a prescient article (2005) for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he discusses how higher education will change because of the ways in which people’s lives are changing. Due to significantly extended life expectancy, people engage in higher education differently than they did in, say, the 1950s.

Today, with so many more years of life to juggle, we are prolonging the younger life stages and adding new ones at the older end. . . . Of particular relevance to colleges is the stage between the ages of 18 and 30. . . . We are rapidly moving away from the rigid sequencing and separation of schooling and jobs toward a new pattern in which higher education spreads out over about a 12-year period and is more closely integrated with work. This is not just prolonged adolescence. It is in many ways a new phase of life, in which young people experiment with relationships and career choices to find the best fit with their practical needs and with their self-expressive goals (Yankelovich, 2005).

At the other end of the working-age spectrum are adults in the 55-75 age range. Some people in this category are early retirees; others are career changers looking for more meaning in their lives, but both groups seek more education to meet their needs.

But by and large, the two parties—the retirees or early retirees and the higher-education institutions—have not yet connected in ways that meet the needs of either side. For example, the typical undergraduate curriculum is a poor fit for older Americans, and the graduate curriculum is an even poorer one. So are the organization and timing of courses, the credit system, and virtually every aspect of higher education that is now geared to young people at the start of their work lives rather than those nearing the end (Yankelovich, 2005).

In 2005, Yankelovich could not have anticipated the Great Recession. It engulfed everyone and highlighted the relationship between gainful employment and education. Jobs became scarce, especially for those without a higher education credential, and the calls for more higher education credentials rang out loud and clear. Yet despite the pleas and demands for a more educated workforce and targets set by the Obama administration, educational attainment in the U.S. has grown slowly and nowhere near the pace needed to hit the targets.

One serious challenge to increasing educational attainment in the U.S. is the higher education credential itself, i.e., the degree. At best, it is a very blunt instrument that signifies in very general terms disciplinary knowledge and skill. At worst, it is a document noting only that the holder spent time in college, but provides no information at all about what the holder actually knows and can do. Even in the best circumstances, however, degrees are expensive in both time and money, and they meet the needs of only a fraction of the population that requires more knowledge and skills to remain gainfully employed. Many Americans need short bursts of education culminating in targeted credentials that clearly signal what they can do with the knowledge they have. Those credentials should be stackable, combinable, readily available, and clearly indicative of ability and expertise.

There have been and continue to be many providers of all kinds of credentials. In higher education, continuing education units have offered certificates, CEUs, and other credentials for decades, and recently many have begun to award badges, competencies, and various additional indicators of knowledge and skills. Historically, employers provided much of the job-related training and education, culminating in the 1990s with corporate universities that sprang up across the country. Despite significant divestment in training by employers, today a whole array of not-for-profit and for-profit providers offer credentials in nearly every discipline or skill. Yet no credential other than a degree has gained wide acceptance, and very few non-degree credentials are transportable across employers or employment sectors.

Thus there is a disconnect between what is needed in the market and what is offered. One thing missing to enable the gap to be filled is a structure or framework that enables recognition of and trust in new types of credentials.


The Credit-hour as Standard Currency

To date, we have used academic credits as the coin of the realm, so it seems that any new credentialing system should be based on the credit-hour. However, there are two significant challenges with this approach. First, the credit-hour is not universally used. It applies only to accredited programs, and learning outside of the accreditation process does not translate into credit-hours. To help solve this problem, The American Council on Education (ACE) has developed a process to convert learning outside of accredited institutions into learning that becomes recognized as equivalent to credit-hour learning. In this way, students can get credit for knowledge gained though, say, the military, if that knowledge maps onto credit-hour classes recognized by accredited institutions. Over 2,000 institutions recognize at least some ACE credits as transferrable into degree programs. For students whose goals are the attainment of degrees, the ACE process is helpful.

Although ACE helps address one challenge of the credit-hour as the currency of learning, there is a second and much more troubling problem with the credit-hour. As the term implies, the credit-hour is a measure of time spent learning; it is not an indication of what a student knows or can do with whatever knowledge she has. Put differently, the credit-hour is a measure of inputs into learning; it is not a measure of outputs, and what most employers want is a clear indication of what students know and can do. Grades should solve this problem and be clear indications of student mastery of subjects, but as Amy Laitinen points out, grades have become increasingly unreliable indicators of learning.

In theory, colleges supplement the credit-hour count of how much time students have spent being taught with an objective measure of how much they have learned: “grades.” But here again, the picture is troubling. Although grades are supposed to objectively reflect learning, it is hard to reconcile today’s grades with the research suggesting poor learning outcomes are widespread. Almost half of all undergraduate-course grades are A’s (in 1961, only 15 percent of grades were A’s). Grade inflation is cited as a “serious problem” in higher education by nearly two-thirds of provosts and chief academic officers at undergraduate institutions in the United States (Laitinen, 2012).


Competency-Based Education

A potentially more useful indicator of knowledge and learning is that of competencies. Competencies denote what students know and can do with the knowledge they have. If a student is competent in writing, for example, then the expectation is that she can write grammatically and effectively, communicate well across subjects and audiences, etc. A competency is an indication of the outputs of learning—of what the individual claimed to be competent can do with the knowledge she has.

If competencies were to replace or supplement the credit-hour as a measure of learning, then the Lumina Foundation Framework referenced above might be very helpful in creating a common structure for traditional and alternative credentials.

The Framework uses competencies—what the learner knows and is able to do—as common reference points to help understand and compare the levels and types of knowledge and skills that underlie degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges, and other credentials. Competencies are understood both in industry and academia and can be applied in multiple contexts, making them a powerful unifying way to examine credentials (Lumina, 2015).

By itself, however, the Framework is not sufficient. First, most credentials do not clearly specify the competencies of those who hold them. Few degrees, for example, stipulate what the holder of the degree can do with the knowledge that she has, and even fewer provide clear evidence that the holder actually has the knowledge implied by the credential. So one thing that is needed is for institutions and other education providers to state what competencies holders of their credentials have and to also provide evidence of that. What does it mean in practice, for example, for someone to have a B.S. in political science? What, specifically, can someone with that degree do? What are the competencies associated with that degree, and what evidence does the credentialer provide that would give employers confidence that holders of the degree can indeed do what the degree implies? Put differently, we need to know—as specifically as possible—what knowledge and abilities the degree implies and—equally as importantly—what the student has actually done that demonstrates that she has the knowledge and ability implied by the degree.

Many faculty and institutions balk at the suggestion that they should provide evidence for the knowledge and abilities of their graduates and thus, in some way, certify that the holders of the credentials they issue are able to put those credentials into practice. After all, they argue, they provide the venue and the information for students to learn, but they cannot be responsible for students’ willingness and abilities to do the work needed to learn let alone apply that knowledge in contexts outside of academe. This response, however, is increasingly unpalatable. It not only absolves the education provider of responsibility for its graduates, but it also divorces the learning process from the use of that learning in life.

Identifying competencies associated with credentials and making transparent the requirements for demonstrating mastery of competencies would go a long way toward demystifying what the holder of any given credential can do with the knowledge she has. That, in turn, would be a key in building the kind of framework envisioned in the Lumina Foundation work.



Another possible solution to the alternative credentialing challenge is a more regional approach whereby alternative credentials, spurred and initiated by higher education-industry partnerships, become accepted within regions through an organic, evolutionary process. Often these relationships begin through training partnerships that expand to more formal credentials. Mary Walshok, a sociologist and dean of Extension at the University of California San Diego is a proponent of this process. In one of her writings, she describes how a relationship between UC San Diego and Qualcomm evolved.

Beginning in the 1990s, a small high growth company Qualcomm (today a Fortune 500 Company) turned to the Extension service to qualify the well-educated engineers they were hiring in the new technology platform their company was developing, CDMA. UCSD through its Extension Division over two decades proved to be a primary education and training partner for this highly successful entrepreneurial company vis-a-vis the specific skills needed in their employees (Walshok and Shapiro, 2014).

Today, UC San Diego offers an array of certificates serving the telecommunications industry including Embedded Computer Hardware, Communications Engineering, Mobile Device Programming, and many others.

Walshok argues that in many regions of the U.S. and in countries throughout the world, there are research university-employment sector nexuses that in addition to tech transfer and research support an array of alternative forms of higher education that permeate the walls of both universities and employers to create paths from education to work and work to education. Often these relationships result in credentials (mostly technically-oriented) that are meaningful in those regions. Whether regionalism can spur an eventual model of alternative credentials that are readily transportable beyond individual regions remains to be seen, but it is another way in which a new credentialing model might emerge.


The Coding Camps

Since the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s, IT has made a strong comeback. Every company has an IT backend, and an array of coders, programmers, developers, analysts, and other technical experts are needed to develop, manage, and run those functions. “Companies in most every industry, either by necessity or to follow the pack, are pursuing some sort of digital game plan — creating lucrative opportunities for computing-minded newcomers”(Lohr, 2015). There are plenty of good, well-paying jobs in IT because there are not enough people with the requisite skills to fill them.

Being less than agile, colleges and universities have not addressed this problem in ways that work for the market. The proposed solutions have been degree-focused, but that’s not what is required to get jobs in these areas—especially not in coding. What is needed is direct coding knowledge and experience. This gap left significant room in the higher education market for new providers that are more agile and able to teach students what they need to know quickly so that those students can move into the job market quickly.

Many of the coding camps have become the darlings of the federal government because they do exactly what the government wants from higher education: they educate students fast and enable them to move directly into well-paying jobs. Dozens of coding camps have arisen across the country (Toscano, 2013). Although they vary widely in length and cost, a typical coding camp has a class size of 20-30 students, lasts for three months, involves very intensive training (60-100 hours per week), costs $10,000-15,000, is delivered face-to-face, and results in project-based portfolios that demonstrate to employers what students can do. As students near the end of their programs, many camps send resumes to employers to facilitate the employment process for their graduates. Starting salaries for coding camp graduates typically range from $80,000 to $120,000 depending on region, and many camp graduates get jobs within days of finishing their programs.

The success of the coding camps is directly due to the job market for IT workers and to the selectivity of the camps. Because student demand far outpaces space in the coding camps, most admit fewer than half of those who apply, and many admit only about 20 percent of applicants. This further supports their success in placing students into good jobs because they get very good students from the beginning.

The coding camps serve as examples of how students get the knowledge, skills, and training they need quickly to move into the job market, but they are not the only boot camps available. In addition to technically-oriented boot camps, there are others such as Fullbridge that focus on helping graduates of liberal arts programs learn how to apply their knowledge to the world of business. Some higher education institutions are now offering these kinds of school-to-work bridge programs also, including Middlebury, Wake Forest, and others.

The federal government has become so interested in the success of the coding camp model that officials are trying to find ways to channel Title IV funds to coding and other education boot camps. Toward this end, the U.S. Department of Education has announced a new experimental site that will waive some regulations to make it possible for accredited institutions to partner with non-accredited providers to enable students to get financial aid while getting training and credentials from the non-accredited providers.

Under this experiment, participating title IV-eligible postsecondary institutions will be provided a waiver to allow them to provide some types of Federal student aid under the title IV, HEA programs (title IV aid) to otherwise eligible students who are pursuing a program of study offered by the institution where 50 percent or more of the educational program is provided by one or more entities that are not traditionally eligible to participate in the title IV programs (non-traditional providers), through a contractual agreement with the participating institution. (U.S. Department of Education, 2015)

Outside of this experiment, an accredited institution may not use more than 50% of content or training in its programs from unaccredited partners. In this experiment, an accredited institution may outsource all education and training to an unaccredited partner. “A requirement of these partnerships between the participating institution and the non-traditional provider is that the educational program must have been approved by a quality assurance entity (QAE), engaged by the institution, that has expertise and capacity as described in this notice.” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015) Unlike traditional accredited programs, however, the quality assurance entity need not be an accreditor. It may be another entity approved by the Department of Education, including associations and other responsible parties.

There are a number of exceptions to the current regulations in the alternative credential experimental site, and the reader is encouraged to read the entire Federal Register listing carefully to understand the full scope of the experiment. Two of the exceptions, however, stand out. One is the ability of institutions to award financial aid for programs that they completely outsource; the other is to expand the quality assurance process beyond the accrediting agencies to quality assurance entities that are well outside the current regulatory process. If these exceptions eventually move through the legislative process and permanently alter Title IV Regulations, the impact on higher education could be extensive.


Conclusions and Predictions

Lifelong learning is no longer a euphemism for learning in retirement; it has become a necessity for gainful employment. Many jobs require higher education knowledge and skills, and increasingly employers want evidence that applicants know how to use what they learn in applied, direct ways. Degrees continue to be important markers of educational attainment, but they are expensive in both time and money, and they don’t meet the needs of those who want to learn a specific skill or knowledge set to apply to a new or existing job. Furthermore, there are many individuals who have degrees but need more advanced knowledge and skills outside of the traditional degree process.

There are many providers of alternative credentials. Some are accredited and others are not, and there is no common structure or format for alternative credentials that provides a clear, concise way to understand and evaluate alternative credentials. Hence, the usefulness of those credentials is limited, and few are transferrable or applicable outside of regional or industry parameters.

The credit-hour is not useful as a common currency for alternative credentials, and competencies, though promising, are still too young and poorly understood to serve that function. Hence, it is unlikely that a common framework will appear soon to make sense of alternative credentials and create the kind of transparency and portability that is needed in the workplace. One possible short-term solution is for a group of institutions or an association to become third-party evaluators of alternative credentials. For this to happen, however, employers would have to recognize this third-party evaluator as both legitimate and helpful to them. The most pragmatically likely way for that to happen would be for one of the large foundations interested in higher education and alternative credentialing to serve as the convener of a conversation and process focusing on this.

Although the alternative credential landscape and its future evolution are murky, one thing is clear. If the U.S. is to meet the educational attainment goals set by the Obama administration, it needs to find a way to make alternative credentials an integral and important part of that process. Degrees cannot and should not be the only solution to the challenge because they do not meet all or even most education and workforce needs.




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David Schejbal is dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning in University of Wisconsin-Extension. He is the current UPCEA president, serves on the board of the Competency-Based Education Network (CBEN), is a member of the board of visitors of the Army War College, a commissioner for the American Council on Education, and a member of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors.