New types of credentials have understandably captured the excitement of the higher education community and the general public. Scores of universities and technology firms are continuing to launch innovative new program offerings, including various types of certificates, digital badges, and proprietary microcredentials, such as MicroMasters and Nanodegrees. In a 2016 survey, UPCEA and Pearson Education found that 13% of higher education UPCEA member institutions were offering microcredentialing programs, and 18% were involved in digital badging. And these percentages have likely grown by 2019. Evidence of demand can be found in the growing number of learners, now in the millions, who have enrolled in or earned various microcredentials.
However, what is much less well understood—yet central to the value of these microcredentials in the market—is how employers are perceiving and valuing these new types of credentials in their hiring process. Like all professionally focused educational credentials, microcredentials document learning and competencies, build skills, and qualify individuals for jobs and promotions. Whether microcredentials can deliver on these goals hinges on recognition by employers. Given the gap in understanding about how employers use and value microcredentials in hiring, we at Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy were pleased to recently complete the first national employer survey exploring these questions, an effort that garnered responses from 750 human resources (HR) leaders at U.S. employers across all industry sectors and organizational sizes.
Growing Employer Acceptance of Credentials Earned Online
Over the last decade, employer acceptance of educational credentials earned online has steadily increased. Online credentials (in years past, principally only degrees) were initially novel and, at times, stigmatized relative to credentials earned through traditional, on-campus programs. Early survey research on this topic tended to frame questions around the reputability of “online universities,” which were typically relatively new, for-profit institutions. A 2010 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll documented that the perception of online degrees was improving at that time, but found that only 34% of HR professionals viewed online degrees as favorably as degrees earned through traditional brick-and-mortar means. By 2014, a Northeastern University employer survey found this had improved to 48%.
Today, two decades after the launch of the first online degrees, employer perception about online credentials has continued to improve as online study has become much more common. Many employers have hired individuals with online degrees or funded their pursuit of online credentials. This comfort with online modalities is no doubt related to the online and blended formats of the majority of corporate training programs.
Our 2018 survey of hiring leaders found that a majority—61%—today believe that educational credentials earned online are of generally equal quality to those completed in-person, a substantial increase from just five years prior. Microcredentials, as newer, largely online products, can now take their place in an environment that values online learning. Employers are increasingly knowledgeable about online educational offerings, providers, and their outcomes, but, to date, much of this experience has hinged on traditional degrees.
A “Big Bang” in Microcredentialing: Still Early in Employer Appreciation and the Development of a New Credentialing Universe
Universities’ professional, continuing, and online education units have for decades offered various forms of non-credit and for-credit certificates; in certain cases, online certificates might fall within the “microcredential” category. The first formal microcredentials began to take off around 2013, a byproduct of the first commercial massively open online courses (MOOCs) and the emergence of digital badging standards. By 2016, many MOOC providers, such as Coursera and edX, had pivoted their initial business models, predicated on free offerings, to focus on offering fee-based credentials, a trend that has accelerated recently. Microcredentials available from these providers and others include “verified certificates,” “MasterTrack certificates,” “MicroDegrees,” “NanoDegrees,” “XSeries Certificates,” “MicroMasters,” “Credentials of Readiness,” and more. Many of these terms are even trademarked.
Despite the proliferation of microcredentials over the last few years, no data has been publicly available on employers’ experiences with and perceptions of them in hiring, until now. Interestingly, our survey found that around two-thirds of HR leaders are generally aware of microcredentials; they have at least have heard of or read about these programs. Around one-third have encountered microcredentials on candidates’ resumes during the hiring process, and approximately 15% report that they have actually hired a candidate who holds a microcredential.
These results highlight how early it still is in the development of the microcredential market. Microcredentials as a category (and certainly specific microcredential types) are still quite new, and employers’ understanding of them is evolving. Just as with online degrees, employers’ experience with candidates who have earned microcredentials will continue to grow over time. Individual microcredential types are early in establishing their own reputations and brand associations. Indeed, surveyed employers reported that one of the principal ways that they determine credential quality is “experience with previous hires and performance results.”
Although many media headlines and Silicon Valley executives have trumpeted microcredentials as “disruptors” of (substitutes for) degrees, the responses to qualitative questions in our employer survey confirm that microcredentials are more typically functioning as supplements to traditional degrees. Many employers view microcredentials as signals of commitment to continuing education and skill development, often serving as certifications of competency or qualifying an individual for a promotion or functional change, rather than acting as a standalone, foundational job qualification. As one hiring leader described, “Microcredentials show a candidates’ commitment to continual learning and skills pivoting.” In the words of another, “I view them (microcredentials) as a bolster to someone who has a bachelor’s degree. I would be willing to look at them for a candidate who doesn’t have a master’s, but I would not be willing to accept them in place of a bachelor’s because they just aren’t in depth enough.” The survey results make clear that hiring leaders appreciate the targeted, skill-centric nature of microcredentials—a strong signal of specialized knowledge—compared to broader, foundational learning.
Of course, this situation could and likely will change over time as well-recognized, substantive microcredentials emerge. This early period in the microcredential market’s history can be likened to the “big bang,” an era in which the universe of microcredentials is rapidly expanding. Half of hiring leaders surveyed (53%) agreed that “the proliferation of new types of educational certificates, credentials, and badges makes it harder to sort out quality,” which underscores the importance of efforts to catalog, standardize, and help employers and other parties sort through microcredentials as represented by Credential Engine and similar efforts.
The Future of Microcredentialing and Work-Integrated Learning
Colleges and universities that are considering or building microcredential programs can benefit from understanding what employers themselves find useful about microcredentials when hiring. To gauge that, our survey asked hiring leaders for their credential design recommendations for colleges and universities. Here the results and implications were extremely clear: employers prioritize work-integrated learning and industry-validated curriculum. In the eyes of employers, credentials would ideally continue to feature real-world projects and capstone engagements (a hallmark of many microcredential programs). Employers also want universities to provide academic credit for experience and on-the-job learning.
Considering the structure of many of the microcredential programs available in the market today, stackability—building from smaller credentials into a larger credential such as a master’s degree—marks an important direction aligned with both employer and student demands. Many employers embrace “just-in-time” microlearning opportunities, giving their employees access to MOOC or other libraries of skills-focused modules and short-courses, as needed for projects. As employees progress in their jobs and careers, the stackability of credentials that verify learning and skills will become even more important. Many universities and certainly the major MOOC providers, such as Coursera and edX, are basing their increasingly business-focused strategies around this type of stacking.
By creating a construct that packages and frames units of learning into smaller portions, microcredentials are opening the door to facilitating greater fluidity in credit transfer and the recognition of learning that happens in the workplace. In a number of cases, universities are recognizing non-credit academic microcredentials for degree program credit. The fact that a number of high-quality microcredentials are provided by non-traditional corporate providers such as global technology firms means that universities will have the opportunity to articulate these credentials into their own programs. At Northeastern University, for example, we have formal partnerships with IBM and Google that recognize these firms’ digital badges and certificates for professional master’s degree and undergraduate degree completion credit, respectively. These are just two early examples of how the future of work and learning will be increasingly intertwined, and suggests a future microcredential market that blurs boundaries between on-the-job and academic learning and includes a variety of creative university-employer partnerships.
Sean R. Gallagher is Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy, and executive professor of education policy. He has been involved in the UPCEA community since 2002.