Home Trends in Higher Education Shifting Paradigms – Microcredential Perspectives from the Entrenched Degree Issuers
Shifting Paradigms – Microcredential Perspectives from the Entrenched Degree Issuers

Shifting Paradigms – Microcredential Perspectives from the Entrenched Degree Issuers

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I am never surprised about the naivete of many in higher education about the changing perspectives regarding degrees and microcredentials. Earlier this week, I read an article in The evolllution entitled Enrollment Management and The 60-year Curriculum: An Organization Development Imperative.

Quite frankly, I thought the article missed the point. It was far too theoretical. While its points may be salient, the bigger issue for enrollment management teams will soon be do we have the proper microcredential products to meet the needs of our students and prospective students and will they cannibalize our degree offerings or enhance them? None of that was mentioned in this article.

The evolllution is a great source for articles about credentials and microcredentials. I remembered that a microcredential survey was completed by UPCEA and Modern Campus (The evolllution’s publisher) last year. I did a quick search on their site and found links to 873 articles about credentials. Fortunately, the article I was looking for, Shifting Paradigms: Understanding Institutional Perspectives on Microcredentialing, was near the top.

The paper, authored by James Fong (Chief Research Officer, UPCEA), Amrit Ahluwalia (Editor in Chief, The Evolllution), and Bruce Etter (Assistant Director of Research at UPCEA), was written based on a survey of UPCEA and The Evolllution’s institutional members between May 5 and May 13, 2021. The purpose of the research was to better inform the higher education community about the needs of institutions regarding new credentials to help them develop programs that are valued by students and employers. More than 600 individuals responded. The researchers believe that if their prospective memberships represent the professional, continuing, and online education units for higher education in North America, that the margin of error is plus or minus three percent at a 95 percent confidence interval.

Leading off with the good news is that approximately 50 percent of respondents indicated that their institutions were either Extremely Involved (27%) or Very Involved (23%) in developing and implementing new credential processes at their institution. Respondents representing smaller institutions (< 5,000 students) reported a higher level of extreme involvement (40%) than representatives from medium (5,000-15,000 students) at 32%, or large (>15,000 students) at 29%.

Nearly one third (30%) of respondents felt that their institution has not embraced credentials. Community colleges, for-profit and other institutions were more likely to embrace credentialing initiatives than 4-year public or private institutions. The paper’s authors explain that because of a challenging economic situation. I would explain it as related to the fact that community college and for-profit institutions are generally more closely connected to changes in the work environment and their impact on educational needs.

Regardless of the size of the institution or its tax status, institutions of all types appear to be struggling with the infrastructure and support needed for non-degree credentials. Survey respondents indicated that many faculty and administrators are not interested in or are hostile toward non-degree credentials citing “intra-institutional competition, questionable quality, and a general lack of understanding or trend acknowledgement. There’s probably no better example of a faculty member’s lack of understanding of current trends than an opinion piece published this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

There are many infrastructure and support issues that surface when microcredentials are offered that may compete with degree programs and courses for credit. I know a few schools that have split their admissions and support centers to handle for credit offerings versus non-credit microcredentials (I’m not sure this is the optimal way to handle it in the long run, but at least it’s working for this institution).

Nearly 50 percent of the respondents (46%) believe that microcredentials are the best way to keep up with industry and market demand. The researchers believe that their responses indicate a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach which is expected when your primary educational offerings are degree program and for-credit courses.

The two largest target audiences for survey respondents are professional advancement (66%) and workforce development (55%). Perhaps the enrollment management professional who wrote the article I referenced in the first paragraph should read this finding.

Institutions are more actively using external sources of information to drive their new initiatives in microcredentials. Labor and Occupational data (42%), local employers (41%), and national employer trends (35%) were cited by an overwhelming percentage of the respondents as extremely important sources of data. These sources were cited as far more influential (29%) than faculty (10%) or student feedback and demand (9%). However, support from faculty was seen as extremely important for development and delivery (46%), almost as much as connections to workforce and employers (51%).

The researchers write that it “is likely that the economic fragility of the institution or the preemptive need to innovate is fueling new credential initiatives.” While 23 percent of the respondents indicated that support from leadership is the most important factor in support of the development and delivery of new credentials, another 22 percent said that they don’t know what the most important factor is.

The role of employers was rated as one of the most important indicators of the quality of the microcredentials offered (85% extremely or very important) with reputation of the credential granting entity (self-aggrandizement – 89%) and gainful employment data of the completers (82%) closely aligned. Clearly, the recognition of value by both employers and jobseekers is critical report the researchers.

There was a notable drop off in the extremely effective answers when respondents were asked about the effectiveness of their programs as compared to other options like bootcamps. Only 8 percent rated their microcredentials as extremely effective with another 31 percent rating them as very effective when competing with emerging entities. My guess is that some of this shift in rating deals with the issues of infrastructure cited earlier.

The survey responses indicate an acknowledgement that competencies and skills are more important than knowledge areas with nearly 60 percent rating competencies and skills as much more effective or more effective.

Survey respondents seem to be unsure about whether microcredentials will provide a fiscal benefit to the institution. Not surprisingly, those respondents who classify themselves as extremely involved in microcredential initiatives rate the revenue source as more important than those who are less involved. Seventy-one percent of respondents agree (43%) or strongly agree (28%) that the development of new credentials is critical to their institutions’ revenue and enrollment goals.

One comment highlighted in the survey is worth repeating again. “A trend that I see disrupting the market is shopping for courses. As education becomes an increasingly online experience, it’s going to become more a’ la carte, where students select courses from multiple institutions to put together a package of credentials that works for them. Those institutions will be selected by price, reputation, and convenience. That’s going to shift the framework towards these smaller credentialing units, short term training, and microcredentials.”

The survey asked respondents to rate the challenges and obstacles that they see to microcredential development and implementation. Lack of resources (38%), faculty/stakeholder buy-in/approval (36%), and accreditation concerns (20%) were the top three rated challenges. Nearly half of the respondents answered the survey question about finding approaches to overcome barriers with 31 percent of those responding indicating that they had formed new roles and committees, 24 percent have not done anything, and 21 percent are still working on it.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that there is a clear lack of urgency to adapt and cultivate microcredentials to meet the needs of labor and industry and a resistance to build new forms of learning that stack toward the long-time pillar of higher education, a degree. They also write that there is a clear disconnect between the reality of microcredentials and their perception within the higher education community. They recommend creating new roles, groups, or committees that can assist in the creation and development of microcredential programs.

While the survey responses are almost 10 months old, the findings of the researchers and their recommendations are important. When enrollments and revenues from degrees are slowly declining, it’s like suffering death by a small cut at a time. Microcredentials are being developed outside of higher education and some of those entities will be or are becoming major partners with employers. If colleges and universities want to be a 60-year partner to their students or to their future students, they need to embrace the development of some of these alternatives. Time is not on their side.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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