Is Micro Credentialing the Future of Education?

by Barry Waldman

Alexis Oni Eseleh graduated college with a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown in global health. But what was really opening the door to job opportunities was the Catalyst Credential she earned from the school that is awarded to students who demonstrate that they have embraced challenges, taken initiative and pursued positive social change.

On a job interview, she was asked about a time she had showed initiative. “I was able to talk about the digital badge and all the steps I had taken in order to get it and to qualify for it,” she told the PBS News Hour. “I even encouraged [the interviewer] to go look up the digital badge on my LinkedIn page,” she said.

Skill badges are part of the micro-credential evolution that is helping people update their skills and demonstrate their abilities beyond the college or graduate degree. They are earned from short, asynchronous online courses, often taught by college professors or other subject experts, that enable learners to expand their skill set and increase their employability with minimum time commitments. They often focus on manageable modules of knowledge and are often stackable, so a learner can take multiple courses and demonstrate broader expertise.

Colleges and universities getting on board

Colleges and universities are starting to get in the game. College of Charleston, The Citadel and MUSC all offer certification courses that are deep dives into subjects like biostatistics, project management and accounting, but are much less than a full master’s degree.

Other micro-credentials come from market leaders, like HubSpot, an inbound marketing platform that certifies expertise in various aspects of marketing; and industry groups, like the Gemological Institute of America, from which Vince Yee earned his three certificates in gemstones, diamonds and general jewelry. Proprietor of Dreams to Reality, LLC, Yee markets himself as Charleston’s personal jeweler, and having the credentials burnishes the credibility he develops in his personal interactions with potential clients.

Other credentials come from massive open online courses, commonly called MOOCs, like those provided by EdX and Coursera, that combine traditional course materials with interactive lessons. They cover hundreds of topics from African Studies to Thermodynamics.

A Stanford University study identified four types of students in micro-credential courses, from the most engaged to the least. They found that almost all students simply sampled undergraduate and graduate courses with very small minorities completing them. In contrast, about a third either completed or attended a significant number of high school level classes.

The State University of New York system has been a leader in micro-credentialing, beginning in 2018 and now offering 400 micro-credentials across its 27 campuses. Some include coursework from regular degree classes while others focus on industry certifications. The most common micro-credential involves a combination of three courses, like renewable energy, green building and clean technology.

Micro-credentialing Helps Employers and Employees

Employers appear to be viewing online micro-credentials with both intrigue and skepticism. The human resource consultancy Robert Half found in 2021 that 95% of executives are challenged to find employees with the appropriate skills. Yet only 15% of employers reported hiring an employee with a credential in a 2019 survey by Unbound, the online higher education journal. The micro-credential industry is totally unregulated; consequently, the value of these credentials varies widely. A certificate from College of Charleston may be viewed very differently than a certificate from a massive open online course or a membership organization attempting to promote the employability of its members.

College of Charleston graduate Alan Strozier, a marketing manager in Portland, OR, dug deep into the marketing certification soil while career half-shifting from sales a few years ago. Using Google and HubSpot certifications, he was able to sell himself as a marketer. “The certification showed that I knew how to do things even though they weren’t part of my previous employment,” he said. “They definitely helped me get jobs.”