Our understanding of learning and work has started to change--our understanding of microcredentials must now evolve, too.

3 reasons microcredentials are poised to go mainstream


Our understanding of learning and work has started to change--our understanding of credentials must now evolve, too

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a startling impact on college enrollment. More than 1 million fewer students are going to college than before the pandemic began. It’s the largest enrollment decline in five decades. It’s also an acceleration of a downward trend higher education had already been grappling with for a decade.

At the same time, interest in shorter-term non-degree options is on the rise. Two in five working-age adults have completed a non-degree credential and more than 80 percent of executives, supervisors, and HR professionals now say that alternative credentials bring value to the workplace.

At a time of significant disruption in the economy, institutions, employers, and workers are all finding they must embrace a philosophy of continuous lifelong learning. It’s a shift enabled by the proliferation of short-term microcredentials. Over the past decade, the number of such offerings has sharply risen. There now exist at least 1 million different credentials, spanning apprenticeships, certificates, digital badges, industry-recognized certifications, and licenses.

Here are three reasons why microcredentials are poised to go mainstream.

Closing Skills Gaps

Students and employers alike recognize there is a growing misalignment between traditional higher education and the labor market. While finding a job ranks as the primary reason students attend college, just one-quarter of working Americans who attended college strongly believe that their education is relevant to their work life. Employers have long echoed those concerns, arguing many graduates are unprepared for starting their careers.

Microcredentials are helping fill these gaps, allowing workers and learners to gain critical new skills in less time and for less money. The credentials allow for non-linear sequencing of learn-to-earn models, greater flexibility in scheduling, and more freedom for learners to stay in their current jobs. These are all crucial advantages for busy adult learners who are balancing work and family obligations while pursuing new skills to get ahead in their existing careers. Indeed, research suggests the majority of those enrolling in and completing microcredential programs already have at least an undergraduate degree.

Addressing Equity Challenges

By allowing learners to access faster, lower-cost pathways to career advancement, microcredentials also have the power to act as one part of the solution to long-standing inequities in education and the workforce.

A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found Black students are “underrepresented in college majors associated with the fastest-growing, highest-paying occupations” like technology—a topic recently explored by JFF— while being overrepresented in lower-paying majors like social work. Microcredentials can help close this gap, with a range of programs providing workers with rapid, targeted, and affordable upskilling opportunities throughout their education and careers.

These programs stand out from the pricier microcredentials catering to college-degree holders seeking promotion. Instead, they offer adult learners from underrepresented backgrounds stepping stones or even alternatives to a degree.

Getting Transparent About Value

With governments, employers, and consumers projected to spend more than $7 trillion per year on education and training by 2025, microcredentials stand to serve as a crucial piece of our workforce puzzle in the years to come. Major companies are already bringing microcredentials to the masses. Earlier this month, for instance, Google announced it would provide U.S. businesses and their workers with access to $100,000 worth of online courses in data analytics, design, and other technology skills.

With such rapid growth, however, the microcredential marketplace is quickly becoming a confusing maze. There is a bewildering array of public, private, in-person, online, nonprofit, and for-profit options. Learners have little insight into how to identify which programs are a good fit for them and their career goals, let alone ways to vet and filter out bad actors. Individuals seeking high-quality, reliable programs are at a loss as to how to find those best suited to meet their upskilling needs, and employers are left unsure how to consider and weigh these credentials when seeking promising job candidates. It also means short-term programs are being shut out of federal financial aid, limiting who can access the credentials and further perpetuating long-standing inequities.

Fortunately, new infrastructure is being built that will help employers, educators, and learners to make sense of the complex landscape of short-term credentials. The nonprofit Education Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS), which JFF recently acquired, has established a universal framework to help those navigating the increasingly crowded education and training marketplace. The standards—which focus on metrics like job placement and earnings—are designed to assist learners, education providers, private investors, and governments in identifying which programs are of high quality and lead to equitable economic advancement

As organizations like EQOS deepen our comprehension of the true potential of microcredentials, we have little excuse not to explore and embrace the remarkable possibilities of these short-term training programs. In recent years everything we know about learning and work has started to change. Our understanding of credentials must now evolve, too.

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