Credentials Unbound - Picture shows an art installation in an open space with wires and lights connecting to each other resembling lightning across the floor

For more than a millennium, universities have awarded degrees to their graduates in much the same form as America’s academic institutions do today. Through their durability and credibility, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees have been remarkably resilient in their relevance and power to convey academic accomplishment.

Universities have long prepared students for the workforce and responsible citizenship. Over centuries, degrees from accredited institutions emerged as trusted indicators of knowledge, skills, and capabilities, conveying the mastery and competency of those applying their education to future settings.

In recent decades, though, new forms of credentialing have emerged to recognize educational achievement. These “alternative credentials”—certificates, micro-credentials, digital badges, or micro-certificates—signal mastery, specific competencies, certification, and sometimes licensure.

One myth is that these are very new to the scene. But they evolved quietly and gradually over the last half-century. They took root in the armed forces, throughout financial, human resource, and information technology professions, and, more recently, in the shadows of conventional academic institutions. They evolved because of a growing need for smaller, timely, and more focused educational building blocks earned incrementally over a lifetime of learning and professional development. They now have the potential to flourish because of the ubiquity of the Internet—as a means of delivering education and potentially as a home for a digital record that tracks student accomplishment over a lifetime.

A second myth is that these new credentials are so potentially disruptive that they will soon supplant traditional degrees—a prophecy yet to be supported by any evidence. Universities and the public remain steadfast in their dedication to traditional degrees. Nevertheless, innovations in credentialing still found a back door into academe. These new credentials are often prefixed by “non” (noncredit programs leading to non-degrees for nontraditional students) rather than defined positively by what they truly are: important, alternative means of acquiring education and university-based credentials.

“Alternative credentials” is not a phrase recognized by consumers or employers, or even within much of higher education itself. There is no standard definition or delineation of what is included under this umbrella.

By their very nature, new types of credentials involve experimentation, imagination, and risk-taking. Innovative leaders in professional, continuing, and online education have championed new models that design, deliver, and recognize shorter educational programs within their institutions. It is now time to find a positive terminology and set of standards that welcome these new credentials into the portfolio of university offerings. It is time to take these out from the shadows and into the mainstream.

UPCEA, whose members have been offering “alternative credentials” for more than a century, is best positioned to lead the national effort to recognize credential innovation within the context of established universities. For this reason, UPCEA has developed an important new quality framework, the Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation, to articulate the ideals and integrity that should drive the growth of new forms of educational designations.

The third installment of the Hallmarks series[1] [2], this new framework calls for a creative, entrepreneurial agility to bridge the needs of external constituents with the resources, reputation, and mission of traditional universities.

Notably, these Hallmarks call for a self-conscious ethical focus that reflects the greater purpose behind credentialing. In a largely unregulated environment, where alternative credentials could easily exploit the absence of accountability and consistency, there is an even greater imperative to exemplify a longer, larger, and lasting view of the importance of these initiatives.

Without replacing traditional degrees, alternative credentials will help shape the reputation—and likely the future—of America’s universities. They will shape the pivotal role of those in professional, continuing, and online education, in developing and promoting new ways of bundling, certifying, and sequencing educational experiences. Through partnerships with companies, associations, government agencies, and other groups, these programs might impact our nation’s workforce in ways far beyond what traditional degrees ever could. In other words, creating small programs could have large consequences.

Alternative credentials, however, hold both promise and peril for universities, whose legacy systems, tuition rates, and public images were built for the creation and distribution of larger, longer, and often-less-convenient degree programs. Alternative credentials can demonstrate a university’s responsiveness to changing public demands for educational programs that are less expensive and more convenient.

At the same time, these alternative credentials exist within an unregulated and dynamic educational space. We have yet to develop government-, accreditation-, or association-led standards that define, monitor, or sanction these innovative credentials. With a growing proliferation of different types of credentials, many of these constructs and terminologies are unique and sometimes even proprietary rather than industry-wide or academically grounded. Special care must be taken to ensure that novel university-based credentials are reliable signals of learner competency and accomplishment—and are held to standards similar to what we would expect of traditional academic degrees.

Credential issuance, as a privileged activity of higher education institutions, comes with inherent responsibilities that redound to the university and its social mission and reputation. Leaders in professional and continuing education are, through their work, setting the pace and the parameters for higher education as a whole. Within a dynamic period that could be easily exploited and abused, these pioneers in this emerging arena must hold themselves to even higher ethical and academic standards. They will be tested over time by the temptation to generate revenue in ways that might not be educationally sound. Professionalism should always opt to forego income in favor of integrity.

A culture of professionalism will enhance and strengthen the stability and success of innovation in credentialing—and help achieve an authority in the marketplace for the powerful role that universities can play in creating new credentials and setting industry standards. In this still-nascent space within higher education—where skepticism and ignorance about the purpose and value of these upstart credentials prevails—the challenge is to ensure credibility, idealism, and an array of services and standards so students, academic leaders, faculty, staff, and external stakeholders will embrace new credentials as both valuable and virtuous.


Jay A. Halfond, Ph.D. is the former Dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, and currently Professor of the Practice at BU. Halfond is also the faculty director of UPCEA’s forthcoming professional development certificate programs, and the 2020 recipient of the Julius M. Nolte Award for Extraordinary Leadership.