Demonstrable Mastery and the Growth of Nondegree Credentials

A recent post at the Hechinger Report identifies a growing movement of employers and workers who are bucking the degree-inflation trend and the assumption that traditional university degrees are the standard for employment readiness.

But now some workforce organizations, researchers and regional civic leaders are pushing back — persuading companies to look beyond academic credentials and to instead hire people based on their skills. A growing number of businesses are listening. In the past few years, Apple, Google, IBM and other high-profile companies have stripped the bachelor’s degree requirement from many of their positions.

These observations are supported by recent research by Strada Education Network and the Lumina Foundation, showing that short-term, nondegree certificates and other credentials can have a positive impact on an individual’s economic mobility.

Adults with a certificate or certification but no degree are employed full time at a higher rate (85%) than those with no credentials (78%). The former also reported higher annual median income ($45,000) than the latter ($30,000). The report is based on responses from 50,000 people between age 25 and 64 that are in the labor force, don’t have a college degree and aren’t enrolled in college.

The popularity and viability of non-degree credentials is being driven by a number of influences: (1) rapidly evolving skill requirements for the 21st-century workplace, (2) the rising costs of traditional degrees (which contributes to escalating student debt), and (3) a lack of emphasis on measurable, demonstrable 21st-century skills in higher education degree programs.

Given current education trends and employer requirements, we should see substantial growth in the popularity of nondegree certificates and other credentials in the coming years. The velocity and scope of this growth, however, will be shaped by three key elements.

  1. Defined Skills and Competencies — Moving forward, the value of both degree and nondegree credentials alike will be tied to their alignment to those specific skills and competencies required for professional growth. This means that institutions and training organizations must create or adopt skill standards and align curriculum to those standards. You can take a look at how TEL is approaching skills and skills alignment to our curriculum in this post.

  2. Demonstrable Mastery of Skills — It is no longer enough for job applicants to say that they have earned a credential (either a degree or nondegree certificate). Businesses are looking for employees who are qualified to contribute actively beginning Day 1. This means that institutions and training organizations must create opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of skills and competencies, and to share that mastery with potential employers via work samples and artifacts.

  3. Clear Credentialing — The acceptance of nondegree credentials will be boosted further through the evolution of clear credentialing that makes it easier for students, employers, and educators to understand and compare their value. There are already a number of efforts underway on this front, including those by a consortium of seven credential providers (led by Credential Engine), and a group of institutions, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library