Microcredentials Can Make a Huge Difference in Higher Education

Published: Apr 21, 2023  |  

Executive Director of Learning Innovation at Oregon State University


The Appeals Court recently approved $6 billion in student loan forgiveness for more than 200,000 borrowers at specified institutions in the United States, many of them for-profit schools. 

While this is the result of the Sweet vs. Cardona ruling and unrelated to the Biden Administration’s student loan forgiveness plan, the Appeals Court decision is an important move forward. That so much student loan debt exists is a clear signal that higher education needs to innovate to reduce costs, increase access and improve students’ return on investment. Microcredentials are one way we can do this.

At Oregon State University, where I serve as the Ecampus executive director of academic programs and learning innovation, microcredentials are a bundle of online courses consisting of at least three courses and eight academic credits, culminating in a digital badge that communicates skills that learners have developed in their coursework. Microcredentials can be taken as stand-alone credentials or applied to longer, traditional credentials such as certificates and bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Why are microcredentials worthy of our limited research and development resources? The answer is because their potential benefits are compelling. 

Microcredentials may help increase the return on investment into college education. Learners are paying more for higher education and are seeing less return on their investment than before. The median rate for four-year public university tuition fees, room and board has increased by 71% in the past two decades. 

The average wage of a bachelor degree holder in 2000 was $58,320. Wages increased only 2.3% to $59,600 in 2020 (with all figures adjusted for inflation). For adult learners who work full time and attend school part-time, why shouldn’t we offer shorter-form credentials to communicate their progress and perhaps generate some professional and/or economic benefit along the way?

For the nearly 30% of adults who have some college but no bachelor degree, microcredentials also provide options and increase credibility. Before shorter form credentials, these learners had nothing to show for their progress but debt. To be sure, a full degree is valuable and worth attaining, but demonstrating the value of learning shouldn’t be all-or-nothing.  

Demonstrating the value of learning in bite-size pieces doesn’t diminish the value of the full meal.

Additionally, microcredentials may encourage lifelong learning. Those who have already earned degrees may come back to improve their skills in areas they missed the first time around or in areas that have emerged since they graduated. A microcredential may be more attractive and attainable than a second degree or a certificate program for learners seeking to upskill in targeted areas. For those who are pursuing second or advanced degrees, microcredentials can help communicate progress during the educational journey.

Developing and delivering microcredentials encourages faculty to think beyond academic-speak learning outcomes and consider how knowledge and skills will be applied in the real world. This can further inspire new curricular and interdisciplinary curricular development and lead to more productive relationships between higher education and industry.

Almost all of my colleagues in higher education would agree that there are invaluable and intangible benefits of earning a full college degree, but the development of skills-based microcredentials means an increased focus on the practical value of higher education for our learners. Focusing on how learning is applied may help faculty adopt more authentic pedagogical approaches.

Offering a new short-form credential may seem like picking low-hanging fruit, but offering microcredentials changes what higher education offers the public. It’s a huge undertaking. New systems and processes need to be built. Stakeholders in and outside of academia need to be consulted, informed and persuaded. We need to research, develop, assess and iterate. 

Many institutions are engaged in these endeavors and there’s plenty of hard work ahead. 

Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court decides about the federal government’s right to forgive student loan debt, we should all agree that working to improve access, affordability, and higher education’s return on investment is worthy of our effort. Offering shorter-form, lower-cost microcredentials that help learners achieve professional goals are one way to do it.

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