Apr 28, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The profile of a “typical” college student today looks very different than it did 20 years ago. In fact, given the rise in non-traditional students and resulting diversity found on college campuses and in online programs, the word “typical” may not even apply when it comes to the modern-day contemporary college-going population.

In order to keep up with changing demand, higher education is changing, as well. One of the biggest ongoing trends? The growth of alternative credentials -- particularly within the context of online studies. Here’s a closer look at this trend, along with why alternative credentials are emerging as a popular choice for today’s college students.


What are Alternative Credentials?

Higher education has traditionally been structured according to credit hours toward the acquisition of a degree. However, with the shift toward competency-based learning and growing concerns about bridging the “skills gap,” alternative credentials represent a different and exciting path to proficiency. Available in just about every discipline or skills, they offer students the opportunity to procure key knowledge and skills outside the sphere of traditional academia, along with to demonstrate these sought-after competencies to employers.

While not an entirely new phenomenon -- upward-bound professionals have long turned to non-degree professional certification programs which were widely recognized by employers -- they are growing in both size and status.

Take “coder boot camps,” for example. Not only do these programs offer the intensive training needed to become job-ready web developers in a matter of mere weeks, but they are also increasingly valued by employers as evidence of that readiness.

Digital badges and verified certifications represent the latest entrants in the alternative credentials space. The former are a means of validating and displaying online skills and competencies acquired in a non-degree online learning environment while the latter offer new levels of confidence and quality assurance through the incorporation of identity verification.

Three Things to Know About Alternative Credentials


1. They’re everywhere.

According to a study published last year from UPCEA (the University Professional and Continuing Education Association), Penn State and Pearson, a staggering 94 percent of colleges and universities are integrating alternative credentials into their programming.

Said Jim Fong, director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Marketing Strategy, “The degree will always be an important credential, but it won’t always be the gold standard. As millennials enter the prime years of their career and move into positions of greater power, we’ll see more alternative credentials for specific industries and possibly across the board. Higher education institutions, especially those in our survey, are showing that they are being progressive with workforce needs.”

And those that haven’t yet embraced alternative credentials, may do so soon, according to Michelle R. Weise, Executive Director of Sandbox ColLABorative at Southern New Hampshire University, who told The EvoLLLution, “There will always be a place for a four-year degree, but employers are going to start to realize that these different kinds of programs are producing a pipeline of job candidates that are just as qualified, if not more qualified, than the students they’ve been hiring with traditional degrees. That is ultimately going to put pressure on institutions that are refusing to adapt to this dramatically shifting landscape.”


2. They offer unprecedented learning flexibility.

The demand for flexibility among students is at an all-time high, and yet traditional degree programs often fall short of meeting student needs. Says Weise, “We have a national agenda that preaches “more college for all” and highlights the degree as the ultimate goal, but we have so many students struggling to actually complete their degrees. Part of the disjunction is that we have a system that is very linear and insular—one that punishes students who get off-track at any point. Non-traditional students need much more flexibility in terms of what the college experience offers to them. The thing that’s missing in higher education is a way to integrate the idea that there is more to upward mobility than a degree.”

Alternative credentials are shaping up to be that missing link. Says Weise, “There are a lot of things that come before the degree that can help working adults in particular increase their earnings premiums while also helping them move towards a credential that makes sense for them.”


3. They are a useful profile-building tool for job-seekers.

A study published earlier this year from LinkedIn and Whiteboard Advisors reveals that top corporate learning executives,  leaders from learning nonprofits and industry analysts foresee alternative credentialing as a valuable tool in the move to skills-based hiring.

Specifically, 60 percent of respondents said employers are prioritizing “choosing candidates based on what they can do, rather than degree or pedigree,” with microlearning -- “content delivered in small, specific segments” -- positioned to take on a leading role in this movement.

Additionally, 57 percent of respondents felt that employees will continue to place more value on non-traditional credentials. Said one, “Traditional credentials are B-O-R-I-N-G. No seriously, innovative credentials are coming to signal innovation and entrepreneurship in candidates.”

The message for job-seekers is clear: Seeking out these credentials and building them into your profile just may give you an inside edge.

The overall takeaway? While higher education experts agree that college degree programs aren’t going anywhere soon, alternative credentials are coming on strong -- not as a replacement for, but as a complement to more traditional curricula delivery.  Says Peter Janzow, senior director of business development for Acclaim, Pearson’s digital badging platform,  “Our research highlights the ways that higher education is changing to adapt to today’s demographic, technological and other societal shifts.”

At the forefront of this transformation? Alternative credentials. Continues Janzow, “What was previously thought of as cutting edge is now becoming mainstream and is transforming the paths that learners take to success.”

Read more about online degrees and credentials





Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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