September 14, 2015

Next: The Credentials Craze

We’re in the midst of a credentials craze. As part of a growing movement to document students’ skills and better prepare them for the workplace, an array of MOOCs, private companies, industry groups, and colleges themselves are offering new types of credentials. The result is a proliferation of badges, certificates, microdegrees, and other types of credentials. Students might earn them for multiple skills covered in a single academic course, or they might bypass academe and learn those skills through a for-profit company like

But what do all these credentials prove? Who decides? And what don’t they show? Some observers believe that the trend toward slicing knowledge more thinly could help level the playing field by focusing on what students know rather than whom they know or where they went to college. But there’s also a worry, as one educator put it, that low-income and other underserved students will get “credentials,” while wealthier students get a rigorous education.

Whatever the case, colleges need to realize that they are no longer the only gatekeepers of higher education, and they must work harder to prove their value, says Richard A. DeMillo, author of a new book on academic innovation.

Thanks to the writers, editors, and designers who worked on this issue. We hope readers find it useful. —CAROLYN MOONEY SENIOR EDITOR, SPECIAL SECTIONS


Today’s employers want more information about what skills graduates really have, say groups that promote alternative credentials.

It's still a key credential, but some programs are working harder to carve out a niche.

Short-term, work-related certificates are soaring in popularity as students use them to land jobs or, eventually, earn degrees.

The future of online education could involve a growing number of entrepreneurial academics who think beyond bricks and mortar.

You don’t need a degree to be a professional illustrator, they say. You just need skills and contacts, which their unaccredited school can provide.

A new platform aims to help employers track casual learning.

As alternative qualifications become more common, accreditors strive to remain involved in the credentialing process and focused on learners.

Institutions that based their value on guarding access to the high-quality dissemination of knowledge will find their status bypassed by a new economy.

In the future, writes the philosopher Alain de Botton, employers will value workers who have amassed collections of specific skills, not those with name-brand diplomas.

For reasons both practical and moral, traditional higher education ought to endorse the use of digital badges, microcredentials, and other alternatives to the college degree.

Despite decades’ worth of calls for reform, education schools still fail to make the grade. So what’s next?

Higher education can take on the work of making excellence inclusive, rather than exclusive, with tools that did not exist even a decade ago.