Perhaps the biggest trend that has the attention of colleges and universities is micro-credentials as enrollment continues to decline in traditional college degree and master’s programs.

Unbundling the 4-year degree: Designing education for the future

Countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education

Employers are in desperate need of skilled workers to address current employee shortages and prepare for projected disruption in the workplace. For example, artificial intelligence will create 2.3 million jobs while eliminating 1.8 million by 2020, according to a 2017 Gartner report. The answer might lie in micro-credentials.

To fill jobs now while preparing for the future, countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education. Such a change requires new mindsets for institutions and businesses.

Related content: How to do micro-credentials the right way

The rise of micro-credentials

Perhaps the biggest trend that has the attention of colleges and universities is that of micro-credentials, especially as enrollment continues to decline in traditional college degree and master’s programs.

“As we move toward an ecosystem of skills- or competency-based hiring, employers will care less about the degree itself,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of the nonprofit Education Design Lab (The Lab), an organization that works with more than 70 institutions and employers to prepare students to fill jobs, and offers opportunities to earn employer-desired skills. “For liberal arts degrees particularly, institutions have to think about how to compete at the competency level, not the degree level, because that’s what consumers will expect in many disciplines.”

deLaski believes that college departments offering majors that prepare students for regulated industries that require degree-level certifications may find it easier to keep their full degree-level requirements in place, such as pre-med and K-12 teaching.

“Many proponents of student success argue that employers will continue to require a degree for most roles,” she says, “but once employers start accepting ‘shortcuts’ or ‘alternatives,’ and once competency-based hiring gains steam, the pace of disruption will quicken.”

The tight labor market already has employers like IBM, Walmart, and Amazon experimenting with alternatives to the four-year degree. In response, higher education is rethinking the value of the degree, accelerated by pressures like the Internet of Things, automation, student debt, and wage stagnation. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that less than half of Americans believe that a four-year degree is “worth it.”

The drivers of change

To create real change in the higher-ed landscape, deLaski outlines key areas that have potential to transform higher education toward the future of work.

Micro-credentials for 21st century skills

Micro-credentials in higher education have exploded in the past couple years; one in five colleges offer digital badges. To support institutions and employers in defining standards for badges, Education Design Lab designs and tests rigorous courses that enable students to hone in-demand skills desired by employers.

“The four-year degree may always be important for certain STEM majors, but we see students hungry for translation of their broader learning to more tangible competencies, and we see employers ready to move beyond the resume and the four-year degree,” says deLaski.

Employers like IBM tell The Lab that technical skills are changing so rapidly that they don’t expect colleges to teach them. The changing landscape requires institutions to prepare a student to learn how to learn, which led The Lab to begin working on new ways to help students build and display their 21st-century skills.

After three years of piloting and testing with 12 institutions and 50 employers, The Lab opened access to its suite of eight digital badges that can now be adopted by institutions. Employers are also signing up to take a “first look” at candidates who have badges. “The game changer will be if we can prove these digital badges as powerful market signals for employability, particularly in building more diverse hiring pools for roles where interpersonal skills matter more than technical know-how,” says deLaski.

Open and alternative learning pathways for the “new traditional” student

Open pathways in postsecondary education is the idea that competencies needed to pursue a given career are visible and available to students. These new digital “roadmaps,” as deLaski explains, support students in identifying and evaluating their options at little or no cost.

This DIY system enables students to “stack” credentials and blend their experience to ultimately become qualified for a desired career, and technology is starting to exist from providers like Concentric Sky for students to personally view, track, and manage their credentials.

“Open pathways allow students to ‘shop’ for credentials from around the ecosystem,” says deLaski. “Colleges must be nimble to articulate and transfer competencies, and we encourage them to specialize in various micro-credentials, endorsed by employers, that help students become career-ready.”

The construct of the traditional student—an 18- to 22-year-old at a four-year institution—has changed drastically. One study reports that of 17.6 million people enrolled in college in fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. deLaski calls the 85 percent majority the “new traditional” student. “Many of these students aren’t getting state-of-the-art exposure, development, and advising opportunities. We needed to find a way to help them get up to speed.”

The Lab works with a number of institutions to understand, ideate, prototype, and test alternative pathways toward student-centered solutions. For example, the nonprofit manages a cohort of partnering two- and four-year institutions to improve transfer and graduation rates by reframing the end-to-end experience from the student’s point-of-view. The Lab is also working with a cohort of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as part of the United Negro College Fund’s Career Pathway Initiative.

Student-centered, not student alone

As colleges and employers explore paths to prepare students for the future of work, deLaski believes the focus must remain on the end-to-end experience, whether the student is earning one badge or a full degree. “We’ve seen that student-centric models really give universities the opportunity to grow and to see opportunity in the new paradigm,” she says.

While we may not be able to conceptualize the future workplace 15 years or even 10 years out, the focus must remain on articulating a process of learning that is adaptable over the course of a lifetime and to think of the lines between school and work as “blurred.”

As deLaski says, “If colleges focus on training students to be adaptable and position themselves to employers as creative, collaborative, and critical thinkers, that’s worth gold in the new economy.”

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