High-tech companies need employees with particular skills; many talented professionals want to learn those skills yet are reluctant to commit to the time and cost of a formal degree program. What’s the solution?

A growing number of adult learners are turning to “alternative credentials.” This umbrella term embraces a broad set of programs that mark, measure, and stamp—with a nonacademic seal of approval—specific sets of skills.

The programs go by many names: microcredentials, nanodegrees, certificates, professional degrees, Open Badges, and more. In some cases, corporations hampered by the dearth of qualified applicants have set up their own programs—for example, Microsoft announced its new “professional degree” program for aspiring data scientists in July; the courses are offered through edX.org. In June, Google and Udacity launched a nanodegree class in Android programming basics. Amazon Web Services offers several “certification” courses. Some have a broader target: So-called “coding bootcamps” have sprung up all over the world, according to SwitchUp.org, which offers reviews, ratings, and other resources for potential students.

Though prevalent in high tech, alternative credentialing has a much broader reach. Professionals, whether they be realtors, copy editors, or dog trainers, can earn credentials through professional support organizations like NAR , ACES, and CCPDT; and the Mozilla Open Badges program pretty much sets the sky as the limit for creating and awarding badges based on knowledge, skills, or experience.

Accredited universities are taking notice and increasingly getting in on the game, according to a June 2016 report from UPCEA, a membership organization for professional, continuing, and online education institutions. UPCEA defines alternative credentials as “competencies, skills, and learning outcomes derived from assessment-based, non-degree activities” that “align to specific, timely needs in the workforce.”

The report studies the increasing popularity of alternative credentialing opportunities, particularly with younger adults; it notes the “critical role in revenue and revenue planning for academic institutions” of these types of programs, saying that they are important to universities’ future success.

Will alternative credentials replace academic degrees?

Individuals’ drive to measure and certify their skills and knowledge in consistent, nonacademic ways is not new. The Open Badges movement has been gaining ground for a few years; Khan Academy launched 10 years ago; and two Stanford University professors offered the first truly massive MOOC in 2012, leading to the founding of Udacity. Even before microcredentials moved online, universities, community colleges, and nonacademic organizations offered certificates in anything ranging from teaching English as a second language to paralegal studies to EMT-B certification. The Open University accepted its first students (in the UK) in 1971, broadcasting courses via television and radio.

Alternative credentials might be offered as certificate or non-degree programs at accredited universities; as seminars ranging from several hours to several weeks, presented by professional organizations or nonprofits; or as continuing education programs that are required in some professions.

Some programs target working professionals who seek to update or expand their skill sets; others target career-changers, nontraditional students, or those who simply need or want to improve their marketability but cannot—for a variety of reasons—attend a traditional degree-seeking program.

More and more alternative credentials are offered via online or blended learning platforms, many of them asynchronous, generating a wealth of learning opportunities for all. This is particularly significant for people who live in places with limited in-person educational opportunities or those whose work, family, and other obligations limit their availability during daytime and weekday hours. Asynchronous eLearning is, of course, available to anyone with Internet access, free time, and a thirst for knowledge.

Common features of alternative credential programs include a shorter time frame for completion than a four-year baccalaureate or a graduate degree and, generally, a much lower price tag. They tend to have fewer prerequisites or admission requirements, and nanodegrees and certificates generally offer a much narrower focus than a liberal-arts degree. Certificate and “professional degree” programs like Microsoft’s hone a very specific skill set, aiming to prepare students for particular types of jobs or careers. Another common feature, this one shared with academic degrees: None promise employment to students who complete them.

All of this evidence suggests that microcredentials, badges, and other alternative credentials are more likely to complement academic degree studies than to replace them. In the United States, the skyrocketing cost of a university education puts that option out of reach for many young adults, even as more jobs demand education beyond high school; alternative credentials offer a learning path for these individuals. 

Caveat emptor

As with any unsupervised online study, the challenges are many: It’s still easy to fake many things online, from the identity of the learner to the veracity of test responses to the bona fides of the granter of the badge or certificate. The ongoing furor over for-profit universities in the United States that didn’t deliver on promises to students serves as a warning. Unaccredited programs have even greater potential for problems, since there is little or no oversight of many of them.

UPCEA’s June report warns: “Many of the new private sector providers struggle to deliver consistent quality in learning design, assessment, and outcome certification, and their instructors have varying levels of competency.” While UPCEA identifies this as an opening for accredited universities to jump onto the alternative credentialing bandwagon, leveraging their reputations and educated faculties, consumers should see it as notice to thoroughly investigate a program before plunking down a tuition payment.

Potential benefits abound

Despite the potential pitfalls, alternative credentialing could offer tremendous benefits to employers and potential or actual employees.

UPCEA’s report mentions a few: “Because they are offered outside the traditional academic degree channels, noncredit offerings can be created more quickly, often in response to the needs of local or regional employers.” These programs can offer innovative courses of study that address real needs and market demands. Learners hoping to attain or improve their employment are likely to be highly motivated.

The potential of alternative credentials has been embraced more eagerly by businesses, thus far, than by academic institutions. UPCEA found that “in industry, the IT and business sectors are the leading adopters of verified digital credentials in the form of badges, followed by health care and advanced manufacturing.”

In fact, the UPCEA report includes a somewhat ominous warning to academic institutions. Its report cites 2014 studies that found that, while 96 percent of chief academic officers surveyed by Inside Higher Ed believed universities were successfully preparing their graduates for the workplace, only 11 percent of the business leaders surveyed by Gallup agreed.

Reflecting this disconnect, businesses are turning inward to nurture and promote the skills they need by designing degree, certificate, or badge programs. And many offer those credentials beyond their walls and existing employee bases. IBM promotes its Open Badge program as a way for professionals to display and share their accomplishments, measure “résumé-worthy IBM skills,” and validate and verify achievements. The IBM website proclaims, “Anyone can get an IBM Open Badge, except a few which are limited to IBM employees only.”

Portable, shareable, recognized credentials, if they gain broad marketplace acceptance, can back up the carefully crafted lists of skills on a résumé, add weight to a person’s social media profile, and provide credibility for bloggers.   


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Brandon, Bill. “Open Badges: Portable Credentials for Learning.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 28 January 2013.

Bullard, Sue Burzynski. “ACES, Poynter team to create certificate in editing program.” American Copy Editors Society. 9 September 2013.

Grasgreen, Allie. “Ready or Not: New surveys reveal big disparities in how business leaders and the public view higher education and graduates’ work force readiness, with some surprising results.” Inside Higher Ed. 26 February 2014.

IBM. “Badges.” IBM Training and Skills.

IBM. “IBM Open Badge Program.” IBM developerWorks.

Maffei, Lucia. “Google and Udacity launch a new Android programming course for beginners.” TechCrunch. 22 June 2016.

Maffei, Lucia. “Microsoft announces professional degree program to fill the skills gap.” TechCrunch. 14 July 2016.

National Association of Realtors. “Designations and Certifications.”

University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). “Pioneering Study Reveals More Than 90 Percent Of Colleges And Universities Embrace Alternative Credentials.” 28 June 2016.

U.S. Department of Education. “College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity.”