Five Best Practices for Implementing an Alternative Credentialing Program

By Jim Fong, Peter Janzow and Kyle Peck
Today’s employers and job seekers are constantly looking for ways to gain an edge on their competitors.
As a result, micro-credentialing programs have seen a dramatic increase in popularity over the past few years, and that trend is projected to continue.
A study recently conducted by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and Pearson found students today are more likely to favor an educational reward system that is built around badging and certificates rather than the traditional bachelor’s degree.
The research explored the role that alternative credentials play in higher education, as reported by 190 institutions of higher education. It revealed that:

  • While alternative credentials are offered by 94 percent of colleges and universities, only 1 in 5 currently offers badges, and that the percentage of institutions that do varies widely by type.
  • More than one-quarter of baccalaureate colleges reported offering badges, significantly higher than the number of master’s colleges or universities that do (12 percent).
  • Public institutions (23 percent) were more than twice as likely to offer badges as private institutions (9 percent).

What Do These Results Mean?

The results highlight the ways that higher education is changing to adapt to today’s demographic, technological and other societal shifts. Non-credit training courses, non-credit certificate programs and micro-credentialing all provide learners with less expensive and faster ways to prepare themselves for jobs than traditional degree programs. These programs, previously thought of as cutting edge, are now becoming mainstream, and they are transforming the paths that learners take to success.
The study also found that badges are most commonly offered in business- and education-related fields, and that 71 percent of institutions have consistent engagement with the business community for internships, practicums and job placement.
Another key finding from the research is that while 64 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed that their institution sees alternative credentialing as an important strategy for its future, surprisingly only 34 percent have a strategic plan that includes alternative credentialing.
Although badging and micro-credentialing are on the rise, many programs that offer them are still in their infancy, and many other institutions have yet to embrace them. As more businesses embrace digital badging, colleges and universities may be more inclined to follow. To implement a successful alternative credentialing program, institutions need to employ the following:

  • Consistent engagement with the business community for internships, practicums or job placement.
  • Long-term corporate relationships through which they can market or seek input about the programs.
  • Corporate advisory committees for their institution and/or major programs.
  • A strategic plan that includes alternative credentialing to serve outside groups such as corporations, government and others.

Getting Started

How does an institution interested in implementing alternative credentials get started? Here are five best practices for academic leaders:
1. Conduct an internal evaluation. Ask yourselves, “Based on our current model for engaging with employers and external stakeholders, do our current and future programs align to workforce needs? And if not, what do we need to become more aligned?” And, “Are we satisfied that current employer or external advisory groups provide us with an adequate assessment of our institutional outcomes versus their hiring needs?”
2. Review your program outcomes with external groups. If you don’t already have external advisors, consider creating a group of local or regional business leaders and employer advisors. If you have such a group already, introduce a conversation around skill gaps at your next convening. Do your advisors feel your institution is already doing a good job of producing work-ready graduates? If so, consider adding digital credentials to help publicize your effectiveness to the wider external community. And if not, begin by reconsidering how your program outcomes can align better to meet employer needs. Invite your advisory groups to help you define the “gap” work skills and competencies in frameworks and to formally endorse digital badges.
3. Implement these frameworks in the form of alternative digital badges and align your curriculum outcomes to the externally defined framework. When assessments from your new programs show evidence that learners have demonstrated those in-demand skills, “credentialize” the outcomes with badges. Then when your graduates show their digital credentials to the employers in your advisory group and in the wider community, their badges will be recognized and endorsed—because these are the same groups who helped to define the outcomes in the first place!
4. Determine whether you want to align with regional or national standards and/or professional associations, or develop your own accreditation. The proper accreditation can convey trust and credibility. Universities have a certain brand strength based upon their reputation and accreditation, which generates a certain amount of trust. Other institutions, such as community colleges, might find that doing their own accreditation will be sufficient for serving the needs of local small and medium-sized businesses, but they could establish more credibility by aligning with regional or national frameworks, standards, or professional associations.
For example, a community college in Texas that wants to help local oil companies solve a certain skill gap might not need to strengthen its credentials or seek further accreditation because it already has very strong connections with local businesses. But for students at a university in Texas who are studying general liberal arts, a credential that is aligned with national standards might be more important—those students might apply for jobs in fields in which having greater alignment with national credentials is more important.
5. Decide to build or buy. Consider what you can resource yourself versus what you would like to outsource to an external partner. Key factors might include designing, creating and implementing a credentialing strategy; developing an open badge platform and the technology to support it; and connecting badges to job listings.
For example, Acclaim, Pearson’s digital badging platform, provides a full set of implementation and design services around digital credentialing and a platform to be able to administer and report on your program. UPCEA advises on best practices for its members; you can access those best practices through UPCEA’s publications and conferences.
The degree will always be an important credential, but it won’t always be the gold standard. Now is the time for institutions of higher education of all types to embrace and employ alternative credentialing programs.
For more, see:

Jim Fong is director of Center for Research and Marketing Strategy at UPCEA. Follow him on Twitter: @JimFongUPCEA.
Peter Janzow is senior director of business development for Pearson’s Acclaim. Follow them on Twitter: @YourAcclaim.
Kyle Peck is co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning and professor of education and research fellow in the learning, design, and technology program at Penn State University. Follow him on Twitter: @KylePeck.

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1 Comment

Brian Reed

Great summary of a major shift facing most institutions. One question that popped into my head, who are the "students today"? A quick review of the referenced study didn't provide an answer. What is the profile of the consumers of credentialing/badging/micro, how are they changing and what's their economic impact on the institution?

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