Could Micro-credentials Solve Macro Problems like College Completion?

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Dec 05, 2019

Last month, the National Student Clearinghouse® (NSC) Research Center ™ released a report on the 36 million Americans who started college but did not complete. The report accounts for 97% of post secondary enrollments in the US and includes data at the state level.

Notable is the 22 percent increase in “some college, no degree” students in the five years since the center’s previous findings, issued in 2014. Most of those that didn’t complete a degree are close to middle age and left college nearly a decade ago after two years or less. More than half are women and left college when they were in their 20’s or younger.

Also significant is that 25% of students identified as “some college, no degree” in the 2014 report have since re-enrolled and completed a degree or credential. Another 1.1 million have re-enrolled and were still enrolled as of December, 2018. With 54 percent of re-enrolled students earning a degree or credential, or on track to complete, there’s hope of turning the tide on students who embarked on a degree, but had no payout for the effort.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article provides a solid recap of the report’s top data highlights. Though the data doesn’t provide specifics as to why students left, for example, changing financial or life needs, general decline in interest or discouragement due to lack of success, the report suggests they’re returning for career needs and/or motivated for a specific purpose. To me this speaks to a growing and perhaps even more urgent need for modular learning — professional certificates and stackable microcredentials – especially given the growing percentage of jobs at risk due to automation, and hiring managers indicating key soft skills are missing from graduates’ repertoires.

Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers this insight: “The whole model that you go to college for two years or four years and you’re ready for the rest of your life — that’s predicated on a pace of change of a bygone era.”

Sarma suggests that colleges also “offer ‘smaller modules of learning’ — like microcredentials, bootcamps, and programs that blend online and on-campus education — and deliver them in ways that accommodate the schedules of working people.”

But before modular learning can help provide a solution to the degree completion challenge, it needs to become more widespread. Currently alternative credentialing still lacks market traction. The 2019 EDCAUSE Horizon Report states, “Only 2% of institutions have deployed digital microcredentials (including badging) institution-wide, but 29% are expanding or planning their use. The number of on-ground alternative credentialing is also still in its nascent stage.

Plus, micro-credentialing needs to be anchored in the mastery of specific skill sets, to help ensure that re-enrolling students can put the newly earned credential to practical use directly. Most of the micro-credentialing currently in place is not targeting the “some college, no degree” population. Instead it is helping those who are already are degreed.

In a recent article, Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, says “There’s a lot of work still to do if we want micro-credentials and MOOCs to emerge as an alternative to an undergraduate degree and also to serve a more historically disadvantaged population that has not had access to the institutions that are providing these offerings.”

Encouraging the “some college, no degree” adult learner back will require a collaborative effort among state policy makers, higher education institutions (using a non-siloed approach across many departments), third party credential providers, as well as partnerships with regional employers. Let’s also not forget the voice of the adult learner. To ensure their context is understood we also need good learner-centered design, brought by skilled learning experience design (LXD) teams within HE institutions or sourced with outside LXD service providers.

To move the needle on college completion, all parties that potentially affect the former student’s decision to return need to be part of the overall solution. But I believe it’s possible. And a focus on micro-credentials – specific practical and applicable workforce skills – is a great first step to getting there.

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