Millennials prefer badging and certificates to traditional degrees, according to researchers from UPCEA, Penn State and Pearson.

More than half of higher education institutions (64 percent) participating in a recent survey said alternative credentials are an important strategy for institutions’ futures. That same survey also found that millennial students are likely to support the use of badges and certificates as part of their educational system.

The study of 190 institutions, from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), Penn State and Pearson, was released at the UPCEA and the American Council on Education (ACE) Summit for Online Leadership in Washington, D.C. and found widespread acceptance and use of alternative credentialing programs at American colleges and universities.

Leading the way are millennial students, who the study found are more likely to favor an educational reward system that is built around badging and certificates, rather than the traditional bachelor’s degree.

The study breaks down the forms of alternative credentialing, explaining that:

  • Digital badges are online representations of skills learned by students, typically with visual iconography
  • Certificates are credentials typically issued by educational institutions to students who have completed significant programs of study that do not culminate in a degree
  • Micro-credentials are granular, digitally presented certifications offering evidence that an individual has mastered a specific skill or area of knowledge, with links to detailed criteria, endorsements, or demonstrations of their learning

(Next page: More key findings on alternative credentials from the survey)

In addition to gauging institutions’ and students’ views of alternative credentials, the study explored the role that alternative credentials play in higher education to better serve the needs of learners worldwide. It was conducted by Jim Fong, director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Marketing Strategy; Kyle Peck, 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; and Peter Janzow, senior director of business development for Acclaim, Pearson.

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • Alternative credentials are offered by 94 percent of institutions.
  • One in five institutions offers badges.
  • Badges are most commonly offered in the business industry.
  • 71 percent of institutions have consistent engagement with the business community for internships, practicums, and job placement.
  • Only 18 percent of institutions surveyed offer digital badges.
  • 45 percent of those surveyed offer at least some competency-based alternative credentialing.
  • While 64 percent see alternative credentialing as critical to their future, only 34 percent have strategic plans around alternative credentialing.

The authors noted that as postsecondary educational models evolve, the standard degree will not always be top dog.

“The degree will always be an important credential, but it won’t always be the gold standard,” said Fong. “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.”

“Our research highlights the ways that higher education is changing to adapt to today’s demographic, technological and other societal shifts,” Janzow said. “Non-credit training courses, non-credit certificate programs, and micro-credentialing all provide learners with less expensive and faster alternatives to job opportunities than traditional degree programs. What was previously thought of as cutting edge is now becoming mainstream and is transforming the paths that learners take to success.”

(Next page: Best practices with alternative credentials from 3 institutions)

Three institutions’ experiences with alternative credentials

The team at Acclaim, Pearson’s digital badging platform, works with numerous institutions that offer opportunities to earn alternative credentials.

Harper College in Palatine, Ill., faces challenges shared by colleges across the United States: to create clear connections between coursework and careers, provide students with a transparent and portable way of defining what the school’s learning outcomes have prepared students to do in the workforce, and strengthen the credibility of continuing education programs. Harper launched its program by issuing badges through Acclaim across a variety of courses and skills, including CPR, network administration, pharmacy technician and Six Sigma Green Belt Training.

Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md., turned to digital badges to help fill an urgent workforce need. With a growing number of casinos in the area, the community college is offering a number of non-credit courses that teach the skills needed to work in that field. When students complete the courses, such as Carnival Games, Casino Blackjack and Mini Baccarat, they earn a digital badge through Acclaim, indicating their preparation for work relevant to those games in the local casinos.

Charlene Templeton, assistant dean of continuing education said, “In 2014 Anne Arundel Community College formed a focus group to investigate offering digital badges as a way to validate core competencies and student achievements. After considerable research on open and closed systems, the Pearson Acclaim platform was selected as it met all of the college’s security requirements, provided protection to the earner and could be shared by the earner using social media. Digital badge earners indicated that since all job applications are online, the badge sets them apart from other applicants. Employers like that they can click on the badge icon and verify an applicant’s skills. It’s a win-win for both.”

Capella University in Minneapolis is one of the first four-year online universities to offer digital badges through Acclaim. Designated by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense, Capella offers NSA Focus Area digital badges to students completing its master’s in information assurance and security, network defense and digital forensic specializations.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura

Add your opinion to the discussion.