Micro-Credentials vs. The College Degree: The Case for “And” Instead of “Or”

Senior Analyst

Top of Mind: Micro-Credentials vs. The College Degree
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

As I study higher education and pay attention to the news media, I’ve been intrigued by comparisons of what some might consider two competing products: the micro-credential and the college degree. Popular narratives could lead some to believe that they’re competing for the future of postsecondary education, and it’s easy to get caught up in the conversation and find yourself landing in one of two seemingly opposing camps.

On the one hand, micro-credentials are a hot topic, and you don’t have to look too far to see the buzz from large-scale corporations that are training their employees in house and universities that are fighting to remain relevant. Compound that with news headlines about the student loan crisis, the rising cost of college education, inflation, a possible recession, the Great Resignation, and the looming demographic cliff, and it’s easy to see why so many people would be looking at the micro-credential as a potential savior.

On the other hand, higher education is about more than the degree you receive. The years of social, emotional, physical, and even spiritual growth for students, combined with a lifetime’s worth of friendships and professional connections, can’t be gained via a digital badge. For traditional-age students, the formative years of 18-24 allow young adults to take a stepped approach to growing into adulthood while being holistically trained to think deeply about a variety of topics. This education and training are core to their future leadership, thinking, and innovation. The foundation they build during this time is strengthened by the credentials they earn, but not often replaced by them.

I feel compelled to point out that a college education and individual micro-credentials are not the same and never will be—and any attempt to conflate or directly compare the two will only lead to confusion and frustration. Recently, Credential Engine published a report identifying more than one million unique credentials awarded in the US in 2022. Of those, roughly 350,000 were degrees and certificates conferred by post-secondary institutions, and about 650,000 came from nonacademic providers and consisted of badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications, and apprenticeships. The remainder was made up of international MOOCs and other secondary school awards.

This data, devoid of context, could lead one to believe that micro-credentials are edging out college degrees in the market, as suggested by a recent article in EdScoop. However, one has only to look at the scope and purpose of the study to realize the data was never meant to be a direct qualitative comparison between the two, but rather a quantitative count of both. According to its website, “Credential Engine’s mission is to bring transparency to all credentials, reveal the marketplace of credentials, increase credential literacy, and allow students, workers, employers, educators, and policymakers to make better-informed decisions about credentials and their value.”

As someone who has two degrees from a private liberal arts institution and a Ph.D. from a public research institution, as well as a host of various nonacademic credentials, it feels disingenuous to me when some wish to compare degrees with nonacademic credentials in an apples-to-apples manner. It’s easy to see how nearly twice as many nonacademic certificates could be awarded when some take as little as one day to complete—compared to the several years of a higher education journey.

Different people in different industries have different needs, and that’s okay. But it’s important for people on both sides of the political aisle, in academia and the public sector, to see and appreciate the difference between these two types of credentials and celebrate them as equally important and complementary, depending on the individual circumstances of learners. 

I’ll give nonacademic providers kudos for bringing about innovative change when higher education institutions have historically been slow, unwilling, and unable to adapt. I am convinced that a higher education degree is extremely valuable and beneficial to many, but it’s not for everyone and is not the exclusive pathway to success. While I do fault some writers and reviewers for unfairly dragging down the value of higher education, I realize that institutions of higher education need to get out of their own way in this conversation and continue to explore credentials as a chance to add opportunities to their offerings rather than potentially see them as a cannibalizing threat.

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Senior Analyst
As a senior analyst, Dr. Matt Winn focuses his research initiatives on academic administration, LMS, and other teaching and learning technologies. He has led numerous modernization and implementation projects within the SIS, LMS, and CRM landscapes. Passionate about using technology to serve and improve education, he seeks to help institutions integrate disparate systems, create automations, and improve various processes across campus. 

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