Microcredentials are poised to play an increasingly important role on campus as non-traditional students become the mainstream

Empowering non-traditional learners with microcredentials


Microcredentials are poised to play an increasingly important role on campus as non-traditional students become the mainstream

Key points:

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the definition of a “typical” college student is undergoing a profound transformation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a staggering 73 percent of students enrolled in higher education fall under the umbrella of nontraditional students.

A nontraditional student typically is defined as someone over the age of 24, often working full-time and possibly raising children. They enroll in higher education for various reasons, ranging from job loss and life-changing events such as divorce or the birth of a child to the desire to learn a new skill, advance in a career, or increase their earning potential.

As a single teen mother in the 1980s, Debi Slaughter of Albion, MI, fit the definition of a non-traditional student. Working in the restaurant business to support herself and her 9-month-old son, she yearned for a management position and went to college hoping a traditional education would help her advance in her job. Unfortunately, the general education courses she was required to take to earn a degree did little to help in her career, so she dropped out.

Slaughter’s experience shows the distinct challenges non-traditional students face in pursuing traditional degrees. Often juggling work, family, and other responsibilities, non-traditional students not only need greater flexibility and affordability, they also need an efficient program that gives them skills quickly.

Microcredentials put students on the fast track to success

Colleges have responded with the creation of microcredentials, and they are quickly gaining favor with non-traditional students and employers alike. These bite-sized, skill-focused programs are designed to quickly and affordably equip individuals with industry-relevant skills. In as little as two quarters, students can earn a microcredential that they can immediately use to get a new job or advance in their careers.

Microcredentials are especially powerful because they are stackable. The ability to stack credentials gives students a pathway for education and advancement because each microcredential builds upon the previous one, leading to comprehensive skill development and contributing to both immediate and long-term educational and career goals.

Microcredentials also are viewed as a way that businesses can provide promising employees, like Slaughter, a means to quickly gain the skills needed to advance and fill employee skills gaps affordably.

Today, Slaughter is a business management instructor at Huntington Junior College (HJC) and teaches microcredential courses in concierge services, food and beverage management, and hospitality management. She said the certifications would have been exactly what she needed to progress in her career in the 1980s.

“General education courses are not required for microcredentials, so the focus remains on making sure what the students are learning can immediately be utilized to advance their goals,” said Slaughter, who helped design the microcredential program at HJC. “While the courses are intensive, they also are personalized enough for the student to immediately make them applicable to their current or future careers.”

She also believes that microcredentials are a solution to the skills gap plaguing many industries today. “I have spoken to several hospitality business owners about microcredentials and they are excited about being able to use them to hone the skills of current employees instead of spending months searching outside the organization for the right candidate,” Slaughter said.

The decision to adopt microcredentials should be strategic for higher education administrators. HJC held listening sessions with local business groups and engaged with local business owners and managers to determine the areas of greatest need. 

Existing faculty often are equipped to develop and teach the credential curriculum, and as HJC found, they appreciate the opportunity to innovate and advance industry practices.

As higher education continues to evolve and non-traditional students become the mainstream, microcredentials are poised to play an increasingly important role on campus. The experience of HJC highlights the transformative impact of aligning education with the unique needs of non-traditional students.

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