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Credentials Reform: How Technology and the Changing Needs of the Workforce Will Create the Higher Education System of the Future

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jamie Merisotis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

TechThis post originally appeared at Educause on May 2, 2016.

While the modern technology revolution has reshaped nearly every sector of society, higher education has managed to retain its fundamental structure from centuries ago. The U.S. postsecondary landscape is still largely dominated by brick-and-mortar colleges and universities where progress is marked by time spent in a classroom and is denoted by highly simplified transcripts controlled by the institutions awarding them.

That’s all starting to change. A powerful shift in postsecondary credentialing has taken place over the last few decades, with an explosion in the number of pathways to an education beyond high school. As a result, today’s job-seekers can possess not just four-year college degrees but everything from associate’s degrees and apprenticeships to occupational licenses and education certificates, all the way to digital badges and employer-based certifications.

The myriad options—and the subsequent push to better connect them—are unleashing the power of technology to fundamentally reshape the higher education landscape. A future system is shaping up in which students are situated at the center and are able to navigate their postsecondary options, from traditional institutions of higher education to a whole host of other learning providers: employers, unions, online programs, and even libraries and museums.

Learning, rather than seat time, will be the core measure of progress in this new system, and students will be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned through dynamic online platforms. What’s more, education beyond high school will be viewed not as a static, one-time experience but as a lifelong journey of building one’s knowledge and skills.

The transformation of this ecosystem will take years to complete, but changes are already starting to take shape. As a more diverse credentials landscape has evolved, the push to create a more connected and navigable system has gained steam, opening the way for technological forces to prevail.

IT professionals understand the power of credentialing in revolutionizing higher education, and they know it has implications for every postsecondary provider, especially four-year colleges and universities, the predominant postsecondary players. They’ve seen how online systems have made career advancement possible by enabling learners to constantly renew and acquire skills and knowledge.

Higher education leaders have a chance to embrace this change and make their institutions thriving players in the new landscape. And campus IT leaders, as the experts on the issues shaping the higher education technology revolution, have a unique opportunity to influence this transformation.

Creating a Connected System

The growth in different types of credentials—from increasingly popular associate’s degrees to modern IT certifications—has been happening progressively over the last several years. What’s propelling change today is the effort to connect these credentials into one comprehensive and navigable system.

Even as their ranks have grown, credentials have continued to operate in silos, rather than as part of a connected system. Each type of credential carries a different meaning, and there’s no common language to explain what each type means or how one compares to another. That makes it hard for employers and students alike to know what value various credentials carry in the labor market.

Recently, though, leaders in the business, government, philanthropic, and education sectors have begun a robust push to define credentials in commonly understood terms: by the knowledge and skills that each carries. This new effort, which is linking previously disconnected actors, can be best understood via a new Connecting Credentials platform for these actors to learn and share from each other. Rather than a separate set of definitions for each credentialing pathway, there will be a universal taxonomy to connect all credentials. This will transform today’s highly fragmented system into one in which all types of postsecondary credentials can be easily understood and compared.

The connecting platform will be especially transformative for learners and employers using the various credentials. Students today have a hard time navigating the value and meaning of their postsecondary options. Although college degrees are typically viewed as stepping stones to good jobs, it is difficult for students to determine the knowledge and skills they will gain from degrees because time in the classroom is the central measurement of progress and learning outcomes are not fully transparent. Meanwhile, the skills gained through other postsecondary paths, such as employer-based training or certification programs, are often clearer, but those options tend to be viewed as carrying less labor-market value.

Not only is it difficult for learners to know what type of credential to pursue, but it’s equally challenging for them to decide how to go about getting that credential. In Beyond the Skills Gap, Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst at New America, cited a hypothetical example of a Michigan woman seeking to upgrade her skills to enter the medical assisting profession. That woman would be confronted with some 2,000 institutions offering medical assisting certificate programs in the United States—59 in Michigan alone—with a wide variance in cost, credits, program length, and financial support. What’s more, even though all of the programs require the same final assessment to move on to a medical assisting career, some of the programs count toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree but others do not. That’s a lot of variation and, as McCarthy pointed out, “a lot of difficult decisions to make before starting training for a job with an average annual salary in Michigan of $27,000—or about $13 an hour.”1

As this example illustrates, additional clarity about what various types of credentials mean would help make the system more navigable for all learners. A more connected system also makes it much easier for employers, who struggle to understand what credentials signify in terms of the skills and knowledge a prospective hire brings to the job. Although college degrees are indicators of persistence and academic success, they do not tell those who are hiring much about the qualifications that candidates carry. Candidates with other nondegree credentials might have skills better suited for specific positions, but the lack of common definitions makes it difficult for employers to have confidence in those credentials.

These changes will also wield huge benefits for the U.S. economy. America faces a pressing need for talent: workers with the skills and knowledge to fill 21st-century jobs. By the end of this decade, 65 percent of all jobs will require an education beyond high school, yet today only about 40–45 percent of Americans have at least an associate’s degree or high-quality postsecondary certificate.2 To alter that paradigm, we must ensure that our postsecondary credentialing system is viable.

The most tangible impact of better connected credentials will be on the system at large. With a nomenclature to ensure that credentials can be related to each other, technology can be unleashed to build out a fully interconnected system. And higher education, as a result, will look dramatically different.

The System of the Future

Although it’s hard to envision exactly how the postsecondary landscape will look in five years, two fundamental shifts occurring today provide us with a glimpse.

The first is the effort to give learners tools for seamlessly navigating their options for pursuing postsecondary credentials. Think, for example, about apps such as Yelp and Travelocity, which have enabled users to quickly mine data about dining and travel accommodations in a one-stop source. Similar innovations could allow users to explore various credentials pathways. Work on such initiatives is under way. George Washington University, for example, is collaborating with Workcred and Southern Illinois University to build a first-of-its-kind online resource enabling users to see and compare the value and meaning of various credentials. The project—supported by Lumina Foundation—uses information from institutions issuing credentials to aggregate data into one source.

Second, as these innovations enable students to better navigate their options, the digital résumé push is empowering students to showcase to employers what they know and can do—while allowing employers to better understand what candidates are bringing to the marketplace. Traditional—and in many cases still paper-based—transcripts controlled by higher education institutions have been the primary vehicle for conveying academic accomplishments, but in today’s quickly evolving credentials landscape, there’s a need for a more dynamic way to showcase prospective hires’ qualifications. Several approaches are tackling this need, ranging from online tools that enable degree-holders to securely own and transmit their college transcripts to platforms that empower users to post detailed information about online courses or training programs they’ve taken to advance their skills and learning.

One of the leading innovations in this movement is digital badges, which denote specific skills and knowledge in order to more clearly convey candidates’ qualifications. Learners can earn badges through courses provided by traditional colleges and universities, but other entities—including employers, nonprofits, and government agencies—also can issue badges. In addition to course-based learning, badges can capture tangible measurements such as experience. A veterans group, for example, offers badges for servicemen/women to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in the armed forces. And importantly, badges can be bundled into robust categories of expertise. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in political science might also earn enough badges for a specialization in project management to demonstrate value to a prospective employer.

All of these tools facilitate a new learning paradigm in which students build their reservoir of knowledge and skills through a lifetime of learning experiences. A college transcript doesn’t sum up a student’s learning; rather, what’s needed—and now possible—is having a digital passport to showcase learning and accomplishments throughout a lifetime.

Opportunities for Higher Education

At first blush, these changes could seem like a jarring threat to traditional higher education institutions, but colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to thrive under the new paradigm of higher education delivery. To seize the opportunity, campus leaders must reorient their approach in light of two new realities.

First, in a system of connected credentials, it will become increasingly evident that degrees bestowed by colleges and universities are one of many pathways to an education beyond high school, an education that today is essential to obtaining a high-quality job. Learners are likely, in time, to become more focused on whether credentials will lead them to a promising career pathway and to be less concerned about who is providing the credential. That will increasingly level the playing field of competition among the various credentials providers: colleges and universities, unions, employers, coding boot camps, cultural institutions, and more.

Second, with learning at the center of how credentials are defined and evaluated and with technological tools enabling unprecedented transparency about learning outcomes, what will matter above all else in the new system is whether providers can help students gain knowledge, skills, and abilities. Higher education institutions will be less able to rely on brand legacy, campus facilities, and smart marketing campaigns. To compete for students in the next era of postsecondary education, they will need to demonstrate results.

In this new era, colleges and universities seeking to get ahead of the upcoming creative technology disruption should focus relentlessly on three things: (1) measuring progress based on learning, rather than on time spent in a classroom; (2) producing high-quality learning outcomes; and (3) offering learning opportunities throughout a student’s lifetime.

Progress Based on Learning

To thrive in the higher education system of the future, colleges and universities must systematically measure what students have learned and must base students’ advancement toward a degree on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Institutions also must move away from the credit-hour-based model that links progress to time spent in the classroom—increasingly a vestige of an antiquated system that lacks currency in the newly connected credentials world.

Moving to learning-based measurement sounds like a daunting, fundamental overhaul, but it can be achieved in many different ways, ranging from enhancements to the traditional college/university model to more dramatic shifts toward measuring progress based solely on competency. Although the latter approach more closely represents what the future will entail, institutional leaders should keep in mind that any change toward a learning-centered system is a positive step. Three examples illustrate different approaches to learning-based measurement.

McKendree University

Without moving fully away from the credit hour, some colleges and universities across the United States are working to better assess student learning and are adapting their programs and faculty development accordingly. A handful of models—such as theDegree Qualifications Profile (DQP) supported by Lumina Foundation and the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative from the Association of American Colleges & Universities—map out the key competencies that graduates need for 21st-century jobs. This gives institutions a roadmap they can use to navigate whether they are preparing students with the right knowledge and skills.

Colleges and universities are using these models to improve their programs and ensure that students emerge better prepared for the future. In Illinois, for example, McKendree University undertook a seven-year initiative to better assess student learning outcomes and link its new assessment system to faculty development. The university adopted seven learning outcomes based on its mission statement and then adapted those learning outcomes based on other models of assessing students’ skills and knowledge, such as the DQP and LEAP. As one result of this exercise, McKendree decided to add a capstone experience in all fields of study and is working to create faculty-development experiences tied to the capstone. Though not a fundamental shift, the moves at McKendree represent a step in the right direction toward focusing on learning and improving approaches accordingly.

College for America

Other institutions have made more revolutionary changes to fundamentally alter how they measure students’ advancement toward a degree and unmoor themselves from the credit hour. The preeminent example is College for America, the nation’s first accredited institution awarding degrees based on competency, rather than time spent in a classroom.

The program is offered through a bricks-and-mortar institution, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), but is not anchored by the traditional markings of a university: courses, classrooms, and professors. Instead the program is provided solely online. Students can earn a degree in as little or as much time as it takes them to demonstrate the requisite knowledge and skills to establish mastery of 120 competencies. More than 3,000 students have enrolled in College for America since its inception in January 2013, and more than 300 have received degrees.3

Without being anchored to the credit hour, students can accelerate the pace of their learning and more quickly earn a degree, thereby saving on tuition. Given this, it’s telling that College for America’s primary enrollees are midcareer working adults, recruited to attend the college—and often paid to do so—by their employers. But this model could, and likely will, be expanded to serve a broader audience. Meanwhile, more than 350 other institutions are similarly pioneering competency-based approaches.

If it seems insurmountable for a traditional college or university to enact this kind of systems-changing approach, consider College for America’s organic evolution. SNHU, a traditional campus-based, fully accredited institution serving 4,000 students per year, spawned an online college in the 1990s that now enrolls more than 50,000 students. That online delivery model, in turn, gave rise to College for America—showing that it’s possible for institutions to adopt successful nontraditional models over time to better accommodate students’ and employers’ needs.

Empire State College

Another bold shift in learning measurement has been pioneered by Empire State College, a 35-site network that is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) System and serves predominantly adult learners. Empire State puts learning at the center of student advancement, but rather than move entirely away from the credit hour, Empire State has embraced a system called prior learning assessment, or PLA, to better capture the real learning students have gained from their experience, including jobs, military service, volunteer engagements, and independent study.

Through PLA, students work with mentors to determine whether their experience-based learning is applicable for translation into college credits, whether it applies to the degree they’re seeking, and how best to demonstrate their learning. Someone with years of work experience in office management, for instance, might be able to demonstrate knowledge in administration, supervision, and technology. Students then go through a formal, thorough process to show how their experience translates into competencies and to appeal for credit hours accordingly.

PLA does not fundamentally disarm the status quo, but it marks an important step toward enabling colleges and universities to divorce themselves from time-in-classroom as the central measurement of advancement. It also represents an important shift toward placing learning at the center of the college experience and awarding students based on what they know and can do. It thereby helps connect degrees—and the institutions bestowing them—to the emerging connected credentials system.

High-Quality Learning Outcomes

In a system where learning is the key metric, the ability of colleges and universities to produce high-quality learning outcomes for students will be measurable like never before. To that end, institutional leaders not only will have to better assess students’ learning and enable them to progress accordingly but also must double down on offering quality programs that produce strong results for students.

Exactly how colleges and universities will do this is less clear-cut—and will vary widely among institutions. There’s consternation and ongoing debate about how much of a role online learning will play in the future college/university ecosystem. What seems inevitable is that it will play some role. Rather than getting bogged down in the potential threat from technology to the long-standing lecture model, institutional leaders should be focusing their efforts on thinking critically about how to deliver the structure that provides the best outcomes for students—whether online or campus/experience-based.

In many cases, it will be some hybrid of both. For example, campuses can utilize adaptive learning programs that act as virtual teaching assistants, enabling the teacher—whether delivering a classroom lecture or an online course—to convey instruction in ways that better meet students’ specific learning needs. These programs work much like standardized tests such as the SAT or GRE, which adapt their questions based on students’ performance on the first few questions. Or institutions might use flipped classrooms, where lectures are delivered online and students use in-person classroom time for discussion and dissection of their learning.

Simply put, in a learning-centered, outcomes-based system, higher education institutions will not have time for debates over preserving the old way of doing things. They will need to focus on enhancing quality and leveraging whatever tools necessary to achieve excellent results.

Learning Opportunities throughout a Student’s Lifetime

As the move to digital résumés underscores, in the revolutionized higher education system, students will build their knowledge and skills over a lifetime. No longer will an intensive period of learning on campus—or even an advanced degree experience beyond that—be enough to allow for a lifetime of career advancement. The 21st-century workers will need to continually build and grow their reservoir of competencies and will do so through a mix of courses, job experiences, seminars, and more. In the next era of the workforce, employees will need to continually retool and learn new skills and information.

Colleges and universities have ample opportunity to benefit from this paradigm shift. By offering educational opportunities that are relevant to learners across the spectrum of experience, from first-time degree seekers to midcareer workers looking to add a new skill, institutions can be positioned to thrive as ongoing capability-adding becomes the new normal. This will create an unprecedented level of innovation and creativity at colleges and universities, which will have to compete with a range of other providers to offer courses that are relevant, engaging, and cost-effective and that produce quality outcomes for all learners.

An Imperative to Change

If colleges and universities want to continue to succeed economically, they must adapt and compete. They must make changes that will allow them to be better equipped for thriving in higher education’s era of technological revolution. But there’s also a major societal benefit to the forthcoming connected credentials system and the related unleashing of technology to create a learning-centered, student-controlled system: an education beyond high school will be accessible to many more people, not just a select few.

Consider that a growing number of new college students are older, working, and raising children. An increasing number also are first-generation, minority students who traditionally have not been served well by the U.S. higher education system. Today only 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Latinos have at least an associate’s degree, compared with 40 percent of whites.4 The higher education system of the future—with its greater transparency, focus on outcomes, and easier navigability—will help to close these long-standing race- and class-based gaps in educational equity by better meeting all students’ needs so that they can successfully complete their degrees. As a bonus, the forthcoming changes will inevitably make higher education more affordable.

These changes will reap positive rewards for all of us—students, parents, employers, and the economy as a whole. Society benefits from a better-educated populace in both tangible and intangible ways. In fact, the market and nonmarket value of growing the U.S. talent supply has been quantified at around $7 trillion.

The shift in postsecondary credentialing and the needs of the 21st-century workforce will revolutionize higher education. Colleges and universities have vast potential to be positive agents of this change, and IT leaders can be major influencers in driving the transformation. But higher education leaders must seize the opportunity now—or risk being left behind.


  1. Mary Alice McCarthy, Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers, and Communities (Washington, DC: New America, October 2014), 3.
  2. Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, executive summary (Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013), 1; A Stronger Nation through Higher Education (Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation, 2015), 2, 5.
  3. Paul Fain, “Measuring Competency,” Inside Higher Ed, November 25, 2015; “Interview with Yvonne Simon, Chief Learning Architect for College for America,”
  4. See Lumina Foundation, Today’s Reality.

© 2016 Jamie Merisotis. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 51, no. 3 (May/June 2016)

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Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and the author of America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce (2015).