Micro-credentials as an addition – but not a replacement – for the college degree

By: David Harpool, JD, PhD
President, NCU

The micro-credential movement is rapidly catching on as a scalable and cost-effective way to train people for quick employment. Micro-credentials are being promoted as a cheaper and more flexible pathway for professional and career entry and advancement. Some of the largest providers of micro-credentials report double-digit growth in applications for micro-credential programs.

The two arguments made most often in support of micro-credentials are 1) they are quick to complete (and thus gain employment faster) and content is more current (complaints surface that traditional two-year, four-year, or graduate degree curriculum is outdated by the time a student completes the program).

Clearly, micro-credentials can be useful in jump-starting a person’s career or profession, especially as an addition to a higher degree. Upskilling or reskilling can be a valuable way to change your career trajectory or start something new.

What is missed in this discourse is a closer look at why we go to college.

While you may learn up-to-date tactical skills in a micro-credential course, the real value of a college degree is in what a micro-credential doesn’t teach. College degrees by design teach learners how to learn. We teach students how to solve problems, think critically, write, communicate, research, and use technology. Knowledge is constantly changing, so that learning to learn — even if focused on a discipline that is subject to rapid change — is better than just mastery of content and skills. That is why the best career and professional programs have as their foundation the liberal arts.

I completely get why employers have embraced micro-credentials. They represent a shortcut to at least a temporarily educated workforce. It is understandable that students are attracted to a quicker path to employment.

The problem is that just because it is good for the employer, doesn’t mean it is the right (and certainly not the sole) answer for students.

Students are reluctant to defer gratification, but there are good reasons a student should pursue a college degree or a robust trade preparation program with apprenticeships.

College graduates still boast higher life-time earnings, typically have more access to health and retirement benefits, experience less unemployment and under-employment, are healthier, and are more likely to participate in their community and influence their children’s education by prioritizing education and time spent reading to their children.

Critics of colleges and universities claim the knowledge and skills students learn is often outdated by graduation. If that is true, then the knowledge and skills learned in a micro-credential course also have a limited shelf-life.

Defenders of micro-credentials as the replacement for a college degree (not an addition to it) state that employees will have to continue to be retrained and complete additional micro-credentials. In that model, the comparison is not between a few short micro-credentials and a traditional college education – it’s between a multi-year training program versus a multi-year college degree. Either way, there are years of training to get where you want to go in your career.

There are no genuine short-cuts in becoming educated. The advantage of a college degree is that the focus on learning how to learn – as well as apply your skills and knowledge – helps you solve new problems and complete new tasks. This is a skill you can take with you wherever you go.

I see the value of micro-credentials as an addition or pre-cursor to a college degree, but question whether micro-credentials by themselves are what is best for students.