Five years ago, I published a book on the future of college degrees, and I made some predictions about what seemed likely to come next in the market for degrees and emerging forms of alternative college credentials. In this time of uncertainty amid the spread of the pandemic, it seems worth taking a minute to see how accurate those predictions are and to provide an update, considering the unexpected and unprecedented developments of the past few years.
To start, it’s worth thinking about 2016. Education policy leaders at the federal level and beyond have been exploring the growing role of competency-based education and non-traditional providers—and calls for stronger links between universities and the world of employment have been growing. University presidents and the American Council on Education have recognized the need to innovate and rethink educational qualifications. And that was just a few years after the first MOOCs were launched, which recently put the online higher education market in the spotlight as it continued its steady growth. What The Chronicle of High Education called “credential madness” was in full swing.
New types of educational degrees were often advocated as alternatives that would “disable” degrees, yet there was relatively little evidence of actual student demand for these entry-level offerings. We were in the early rounds of what I argued at the time was more of a show-side-driven phenomenon: Universities and companies were testing new offerings, and the foundation was laid for a shorter-form credential and a more digitally oriented future.
Today, there is ample evidence of the demand for new types of educational credentials – especially since the beginning of the pandemic. The growth of educational platform companies like Coursera and 2U is partly due to increased demand for degree programs and “alternative credential” offerings. The number of open badges awarded nearly doubled from 24 million in 2018 to 43 million in 2020. Large companies and industry groups are increasingly getting into the accreditation game, for example by companies like IBM and Google. Surveys by Strada Education Network show that 40 percent of working-age adults have earned some type of non-degree credential — and non-degree credentials are at the top of the list for adults seeking education or retraining. Among employers, awareness and experience of new and non-degree digital accreditations are also circulating — and the potential value proposition of digital accreditation resonates, according to survey results we published just last week.
Today, fewer providers are trying to brand their offerings with names like “nanodegree,” “MicroMasters,” and “Credential of Readiness,” as they did a few years ago with a mixture of new, often branded terms. Instead, it appears that “certificates” of all kinds are enjoying momentum in the United States as the standard bearer for short-form educational programmes. However, there is still a lot of confusion or ignorance in the market regarding the basic differences between “certificates” and “certificates”.
The forces that led to interest in new forms of credentials in 2016 remain in place and arguably strengthened: the increasing cost of traditional degrees; Demand for more practical and skills-oriented education; shift towards digital delivery; Desire of colleges to find new sources of income; and the need for employers to find new talent pipelines. As expected, badges, integrating certifications into grades, and the idea of offering small credentials on the way to a larger certification are emerging as major trends, ways in which new credential types augment and complement (rather than replace).
Recruitment is becoming more and more technology dependent
A major factor I’ve been studying is how employers think about talent and changes in the hiring process, including shifts in their perceptions of college, university, and other credentials.
Five years ago, the application of data and algorithms to the HR function—as well as the use of pre-employment assessment—was in a nascent stage. In 2018, my colleagues at Northeastern University and I had the opportunity to gauge these shifts with a national employer survey, which found that more than half of organizations began to use data and analytics to determine educational qualifications—and that 23 percent were engaged in “employment” initiatives. skill-based” that downplayed the importance of degrees. Since then, interest in skill-based hiring and employers’ willingness to bypass the demand for college degrees has grown exponentially, driven by a tight labor market and employer concerns about diversity and fairness.
The latest national employer survey, released just last week with IMS Global affiliate 1EdTech, found that 34 percent of HR leaders say their organizations have skills-based hiring strategies in place today. And a larger percentage of HR professionals are exploring or considering this approach. Moreover, our research revealed a clearer sense of employers’ motivations: they want better employment outcomes, create new paths for greater diversity in the workforce, and they are pinched on talent. We also got a better idea of how skill-based recruitment is implemented: this is often done through pre-employment assessments, structured interviews, and the use of portfolios and certifications in the hiring process.
This skill-based hiring trend has real momentum and is also evident in the analysis of job advertisements for employers and other data sources. The future is likely to see a continued decline in focus on simply requiring college degrees for potential employees.
But that doesn’t mean employers no longer value college credentials, despite exaggerated media reports that employers “refuse” certifications.
Despite all the changes, today’s job market continues to evaluate college degrees and demand college graduates – contrary to the notion that alternative qualifications and turbulent market forces will simply wash away universities. This does not mean at all that the colleges’ strategies, offerings, and value are perfect.
In my book, I’m perhaps a little over-optimistic about the flexibility of traditional higher education. College enrollment has been on the decline, falling 7 percent between 2010 and 2018. Then came the pandemic and even more severe declines that “show no signs of recovering from 2020” as documented by the National Student Information Exchange Research Center and other sources. Even if this downturn doesn’t quite match the dire predictions of mass college closures that were common in 2016, recent history and near-term prospects for traditional higher education are more negative than I could have imagined.
Lifelong learning and post-baccalaureate education as a bright spot
The need for more lifelong learning is growing at all levels, and there is more evidence that the needs of the labor market are changing faster than ever before, implying the need for increased skills. According to a new national survey of C Suite executives we recently conducted, 70% said American workers should be concerned that their skills will become obsolete over the next few years. Quarter after quarter, results from a growing list of publicly traded education technology companies — including Udemy, Coursera, 2U, and Duolingo, for example — symbolize market demand for lifelong learning and upskilling.
Although the need for lifelong learning does not mean that everyone needs a bachelor’s or master’s degree, higher education is a higher bright spot, and I predicted in my book that it was corroborated by data, despite repeated claims in the media in the In recent years the graduate degree market has been saturated and on the verge of collapse. Certainly, there are some very expensive traditional graduate programs that offer poor value to students. But this is by far the exception. The vast majority of those applying for master’s degrees in the United States have been professionally oriented for a number of decades, and demand has been growing, especially with graduate enrollment moving online. Even before the pandemic, 40 percent of graduate-level students in the United States were online or co-ed.
The proportion of Americans earning a master’s degree before the age of 29 has risen steadily over the past 10 years, and has doubled in the last 25 years. The Council of Graduate Schools and the National Center for Student Research have documented significant growth in graduate enrollment. 5 percent between 2019 and 2021, compared to a 5 percent drop in college enrollment. And the salary premium for higher grades is still high, which means that degrees usually pay off.
Innovations such as non-degrees that are stackable as ramp-based and low-cost MOOC-based degrees from top universities are likely to increase access to post-baccalaureate education. The number of MOOC-based certifications is approaching 100, down from just a few a year after my book was published. Additionally, our recent research with corporate human resources and learning leaders also points to a more fluid and modular future, building on the trend toward digital micro-learning and the adoption of platforms that aggregate courses, learning experiences, and credentials from a range of sources. Employer acceptance of credentials earned online has also grown steadily, according to our latest research — reaching more than 70 percent in 2021, up from 61 percent in 2018 and 40 percent in 2013. This trend has also seen a jump forward due to the pandemic.
Innovation in lifelong learning and vocational education has also taken the form of boot camps – which were relatively new to the scene in 2016. predictably Selected by brand universities – including Penn, UC Berkeley, Northwestern, Cambridge University, and countless others – by partnering with enabling companies. Online education service companies – or “OPMs” as many refer to them, have continued to play a major role in expanding the reach of online higher education, both within the United States and now increasingly beyond.
One dynamic I would have never dreamed of: the takeovers of struggling colleges by nonprofit (especially public) universities, such as the examples of Purdue University and Kaplan University in 2017, and the University of Arizona and Ashford in 2020. At least, that’s a sign that the education market The high is in the process of being fundamentally remodeled.
Still ‘Wild West’ in some respects
Despite these advances in innovation accreditation, there is still a great need for standards, infrastructure, thoughtful policy, experimentation and innovative research to support the development of an ecosystem for high quality accreditation offerings.
In the years since 2016, I have had the privilege of contributing and learning from a number of initiatives and projects in this space – the Connecting Credentials campaign sponsored by Lumina; launch of non-accredited certification research network; Develop the hallmarks of UPCEA in accreditation innovation, and much more. It has been great to hear from university, government and business leaders from around the world who are all passionate about this topic. And it certainly helped me install my columns in EdSurge.
All kinds of new credentials are proliferating, but they aren’t guided by any consistent central framework, and they aren’t necessarily “compatible” yet in ways that can really reshape job acquisition or a degree. In an increasingly global and digital higher education market, the next challenge goes beyond any institution, accreditation region, market segment, or even a single country. UNESCO, for example, recently made an effort to “move towards a common language in micro-accreditation”. The European Union, many individual countries and various NGOs – as well as industry groups and educational leaders in the United States – are working hard on standards frameworks.
Whether it’s 2016, 2021 or 2030, college and university degrees aren’t going away anytime soon — but the role and value of educational credentials in the job market, the forms in which they are obtained, and the value students demand is constantly evolving. The COVID-19 pandemic has launched the global economy – and the post-secondary landscape – into a new era, and there is exciting work ahead to continue to innovate and document developments in this space.