Gotta catch 'em all: Credential stacking and degrees can co-exist

Education journalist Laura Pappano says higher ed is turning into a "real-life game of Pokémon."

Like players of the game, students are collecting, stacking, and combining credentials to showcase their "powers"—that is, the skills that make them employable in today's economy.

Education's Pokémon-like future goes hand-in-hand with a greater economic shift affecting the way employers consider candidates. Especially in technical fields requiring highly specialized workers, employers today sometimes prefer candidates who lack bachelor's degrees but have stacks of other credentials to prove they can do the job.

And those credentials often are not coming from traditional educators. The industry is a crowded one that includes boot camps, online learning platforms, and even companies like IBM.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, 54% of working adults say stacking credentials is "essential."

"We have entered a "'prove it' economy," writes Pappano. "Codified skills are currency."

Some say this means that traditional college degrees will soon be obsolete. Employers have "less and less confidence" in degrees, according to Jason Tyszko, the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

To secure their place in the future economy, some colleges are offering students a way to provide the "proof" of technical skills employers demand:

  • South Seattle College embeds licenses and industry certifications within its various academic programs;
  • Drexel University offers upwards of 30 online educational certificate programs in specialized areas, which students can then apply toward master's degrees; and
  • 20 community colleges are taking part in the American Association of Community Colleges' Right Signals Initiative, focused on breaking up learning into credentials students can either apply toward a degree or use immediately to enter the job market.

To discern which credentials will be valuable for students, Drexel also partners with and interviews employers. For the master's program in Quality, Safety and Risk Management in Healthcare, for instance, Drexel interviewed hospital administrators and insurance executives about which skills they wanted to see in candidates.

Two successful approaches to employer partnerships

Some experts argue the key to fitting higher education into the credentialing economy will be a standardized system of credentials, recognizable to industries and institutions alike.

Currently, credentials can take a number of forms, including but not limited to:

  • Badges;
  • Licenses;
  • Certificates; or
  • Certifications.

And each type has different requirements, ranging from completing a course, taking an exam, or something more. 

The careers most "hyper-stackable"

Such a dizzying array of options means that a credential can mean almost anything—and some say there's a strong need to enforce more consistency.

As Bob Sheets, a professor at George Washington University's Institute of Public Policy, puts it: "We need to make all these types of credentials more transparent and clear in terms of what they mean... and in terms of how they connect with each other."

Several initiatives to do so are already underway, including Credly and Credential Engine. But agreeing on a consistent standard will take widespread coordination between employers, colleges, and the students themselves (Pappano, Hechinger Report, 4/27).

For growing adult learner enrollment, coordinating with employers is key

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