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What Are Micro-Credentials? How Colleges Are Adapting to the Modern Workforce

The evolution of higher education continues. From shifting student demographics to distance learning and competency-based courses, the higher education field has experienced its fair share of change throughout the past few decades. It continues to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce.

One of the newest trends on the scene is the emergence of micro-credentials as a new form of certification. The demand for such offerings is driven by the emerging skills gap in today’s 21st century workforce.

Keep reading to learn more about the purpose of micro-credentials and what they mean for students and higher education institutions alike.

What are micro-credentials?

You’ve heard about micro-credentials before. But it’s worth beginning with a quick explanation of this relatively new concept. The National Education Association describes micro-credentials as a “competency-based digital form of certification.”

Sometimes referred to as “badges,” micro-credentials are hyper-focused and typically comprised of sub-competencies. These skills are outlined within a rubric, along with the specific criteria required of each. It is earned once a student successfully demonstrates each competency.

Micro-credentials typically align with soft skills that are valued by employers. They recognize an individual’s proficiency in areas like oral communication, initiative or even empathy. Once earned, the recipient can add it to their LinkedIn profile and resume as a way to formally recognize their aptitude in that area.

What’s driving the need for micro-credentials?

Micro-credentials are gaining a lot of traction in the education field. Why? Because there’s a growing disconnect between what employers want and what candidates have to offer — especially when it comes down to their soft skills.

Over 80 percent of employers say that written communication skills were what they wanted to see most on student resumes — even more than problem solving, technical skills and leadership, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' 2019 Job Outlook survey.

It seems recruiters are placing more and more value on soft skills when assessing job candidates. In fact, 90 percent of surveyed hiring managers reported that soft skills are just as or even more important to hire for than hard skills, according to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Report.

And the desire for heightened soft skills isn’t driven by employers alone. A recent survey conducted by Ellucian revealed that students are craving more training in these areas as well, with communication and critical thinking skills topping the list of skills they’re seeking.

This is where micro-credentials can help fill the skills gap.

How are micro-credentials helping meet demand?

Most college degree programs are built to train students on the technical skills needed to perform the duties related to their desired profession. What’s not always as prevalent is training on the transferable skills that help individuals succeed beyond the most basic job duties.

For example, aspiring data analysts will master technical skills like SQL, Tableau and data mining in a degree program. These are all skills necessary to carry out the daily duties of the job. But employers are also seeking candidates with a demonstrated proficiency in problem-solving, communication and project management. These skills make them more collaborative, productive employees, and are areas in which micro-credentials can make an impact.

And because these certifications are built upon competencies, they carry more weight with employers. Anyone can list “communication, critical thinking and empathy” in a paragraph on a resume. But displaying a micro-credential serves as concrete evidence that you’ve demonstrated proficiency in that area.

Early indicators suggest micro-credentials are a promising solution for students and employers alike, but it is still in its early phases. It’s worth considering that these contemporary credentials may eventually need to undergo some sort of standardization process — both to increase its validity, and also to set expectations of students and employers.

But with many institutions already adopting the micro-credential method in various ways, it seems to be a trend that won’t be fading anytime soon.

Who are the early adopters of micro-credentials in higher education?

It hasn’t been long since micro-credentials first made their entrance in the higher ed world. Though they are still in their infancy, a handful of institutions have already acknowledged their value and incorporated them into their suite of offerings.

For example:

  • Colorado State University offers an array of soft-skill badges which include subjects such as teamwork, conflict resolution and stress management.
  • George Mason University established a resilience badge, which demonstrates a student’s ability to positively deal with stress, change, uncertainty and adversity.
  • Illinois State University has awarded more than 7,000 digital badges to students through its honors program.
  • California Community Colleges (CCC) now offer “21st Century Skills badges” throughout their campuses, covering skills such as collaboration, digital fluency, entrepreneurial mindset and social/diversity awareness.

These are just a few examples of how forward-thinking institutions have adopted the micro-credential method to help provide additional development opportunities for the modern student.

Filling the soft skills gap

Higher ed continues to evolve to meet the needs of students and the workforce. With the increasing desire for job candidates with stronger soft skills, micro-credentials and digital badges stand to benefit graduates and employers alike. Because of this, we anticipate more schools to join the soft skills movement by incorporating micro-credentials into their program portfolios.

The increasing implementation of micro-credentials is just one of many trends emerging in higher education. Learn more about what else is on the horizon in our article, The Future of EdTech: 3 Changes You Can Expect to See.”

Curious about how your institution might incorporate micro-credentials into your program mix? We’d love to chat about the opportunities! Contact us at info@collegiseducation.com.

About the Author

Kristina Ericksen

Kristina Ericksen is a content writer with four years of experience writing for higher education. She holds an English degree from Gustavus Adolphus College.

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