How Credentials Impact the Value of Higher Education


Education has evolved significantly over the past couple of years. Higher education is still considered a powerful asset for professionals and job seekers alike, but the traditional four-year degree certainly isn’t the only credential out there that can help learners progress in their careers. Certificate programs, micro-degrees, and online learning courses are becoming exponentially more available, providing learners with a lot of homework to do in making their pick. 

Alternative credentials aren’t new; the American Council of Education was investigating them way back in 2015, noting that between the years 2000 and 2009, certificates were the fastest-growing alternative credential. However, their research also noticed that alternative credentials placed a higher burden on learners as they worked to select the best options for themselves. But what seemed like a lot of choices back then is just a drop in the bucket now.

With a plethora of online and in-person learning options alongside community colleges and traditional universities, students of all ages have plenty of choices to make when it comes to higher education. With everything from degrees to online badges, it’s important that you consider the credibility, transferability, and reputation of the credentials that you pursue.


The Explosion of Online Credentials and Certifications

With the onset of Covid-19 in 2020 and the closure of the majority of in-person higher education institutions, online education saw unparalleled growth. The benefits of accessibility, flexibility, and targeted learning have attracted more learners from a huge variety of industries. 

Projections are estimating that the online education market will pass $350 billion globally by the year 2025, so these learning opportunities are here to stay. Non-profit Credential Engine estimates that online credential programs have more than doubled since 2018, growing from 334,114 to over 738,400 in 2019 — notably, this was before the pandemic even began. Some other interesting statistics from their report include:

  • Over 370,000 credentials issued by postsecondary educational institutions
  • Over 7,000 credentials from massive online open course providers, mostly course completion certificates
  • Over 315,000 credentials from non-academic organizations that award digital badges and online course completion certificates
  • Over 46,000 credentials from public and private secondary schools

Remember, those numbers are prior to 2020. Let’s jump into a little more detail on some of the most popular credential types, who they’re suited for, and what learners should be looking for in providers. 


Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

If you’ve ever thought “I can probably learn this on the internet for free” that’s exactly where MOOCs come in. Available to anyone with internet access, MOOCs are usually free and span an incredible array of topics. Popular providers like Coursera and edX have the benefit of partnering with higher education institutions to develop online classes, lending them additional credibility. Students can audit a class for free, but a verified certificate may come with a $30 to $150 cost per class. 

Why is a verified certificate important? To get one, a student has to provide proof of identity then meet a standard of excellence to pass the class. Paying for the class to get that certificate proves to employers that you met the requirements and finished the course, making it more impactful on your resume. 

Some MOOCs also offer a series of classes, providing students with an overall certificate in addition to single class completions. These can include coding boot camps and other shorter programs that are completed in 3-6 months. Those programs are more widely recognized, but they also carry a higher price tag.


Micro degrees and nano degrees

MOOCs can actually contribute to bachelor’s and master’s degrees for some programs. MicroMasters from edX provides opportunities for students to try out a degree program with little or no financial commitment in a variety of fields, while offering a way to eventually earn a formal master’s degree. Udacity provides a similar offering in their Nanodegrees and partners with industry experts and provides mentors, career coaching, and other services to their learners.

Ultimately, these online programs remove a lot of the barriers that prevent students from earning an additional higher education degree. They’re also typically faster than a traditional degree, allowing learners to upskill faster.


Certificates from higher education institutions

Professionals are often ready to upskill in a specific area, but don’t have the time to spend earning a whole new degree. Most accredited universities offer continuing education certificates and many of them are available online. It’s a similar time commitment to micro or nano degrees, but far less than a traditional degree.     


Digital badges

You’ve likely seen a badge shared on LinkedIn or called out on a resume. Sometimes these badges are provided through MOOCs, or earned from a certification class. They’re a great visual to capture interest on a website.


Who are Alternative Credentials Designed for?

Unicef reports that prior to the pandemic, over 260 million youth globally from ages 15-24 were not receiving any kind of education or employment training. With the closure of over 73% of schools across the world, learning became harder for everyone; but it was especially difficult for those who were already on the margins of higher education.

Enter alternative credentials, focused on specific job skills that are accessible, faster to complete, and more affordable than traditional education. With the rise of these programs comes a wave of opportunity for many who wouldn’t have been able to study under the structure and circumstances of traditional higher education. 

Alternative credentials offer learners the chance to tackle longer programs in smaller steps and at their own pace. Certificates can stack and contribute to traditional degrees. An earned degree can be improved and updated with an upskilling course on newer technology. You can try out a subject at little or no cost, to see if your interest will be sparked into something that would sustain a career. A job seeker can quickly and economically add a skill to their resume that might help them land a more beneficial position or earn a promotion.  

Essentially, alternative credentials are for anyone who wants to start learning a topic without making a huge financial or time commitment. 


Finding the Skills You Need With Alternative Credentials

Many alternative credential programs are aimed at business or tech students, with much of their learning ability to be accomplished remotely. Hard skills like programming languages, analytics, project management, and writing all lend themselves well to alternative credential programs. These accelerated courses help people get up to speed on a specific topic as quickly as possible, making (or keeping) them competitive in their industries.

But what about soft skills? Employers aren’t only looking for people who can check the technical skill boxes. Soft skills including critical thinking, communication, listening, and interpersonal skills are regularly cited as difficult to find among job candidates. Can alternative credentials also help students learn these skills?

Absolutely. Programs like FranklinCovey’s LeaderU provide alternative credentials that illustrate a learner’s skills in leadership, creativity, innovation, and teamwork. These skills are among the most sought-after characteristics in job applicants, making them the perfect complement to the hard skills on your resume.   


Alternative Credentials, Higher Education, and Employers

Alternative credentials aren’t meant to be equivalent to a traditional college degree. Sometimes they are a substitute, sometimes they are a compliment, and sometimes they are an update to skills that have evolved with technology. Prospective learners should be careful to select programs that will give them the certificates, degree, or other validation that will support them in their goals and be able to travel with them throughout their careers.

Higher education institutions see the need for more ways to learn. They are partnering with MOOCs to provide alternative credentials alongside their traditional programs, working to meet students in the ways that work best for them individually. By providing shorter, targeted opportunities these institutions are making sure that everyone has the opportunity to be a lifelong learner, expand their knowledge base, and be ready for their next challenge.

Alternative credentials are perfect for soft skill improvement, too. As employers are recognizing the need for training in areas like leadership and communication, they are teaming up with other companies and even designing their own alternative credential programs to provide the training and resources that build successful individuals, teams, and companies. While internal training might not provide transferable credibility, many companies are providing offerings like courses from LeaderU that will result in certifications that can travel with their learners throughout their careers. 



How to Create a Powerful Student Leadership Program
On-Demand Panel Webcast


Previous Article
Proactively Managing Mental Wellness of College Students
Proactively Managing Mental Wellness of College Students

Mental health has escalated from issue to crisis over the last few years — and that’s especially true for c...

Next Article
Career Readiness: How to Define It and Teach It
Career Readiness: How to Define It and Teach It

Colleges and universities are now focusing on what makes a recent college graduate employable and targeting...


How do you lead your college or university in a new world? Download the guide.

First Name
Last Name
College or University
I would like to receive email communications from FranklinCovey.
By clicking “Submit” you consent to receiving commercial electronic messages from FranklinCovey on a variety of topics to help your organization maximize performance. You can withdraw your consent at any time.
FranklinCovey does not share, sell, rent, or trade personally identifiable information with third parties for promotional purposes. Privacy policy
Thank you!
Error - something went wrong!