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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

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University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Universities of Wisconsin System

Case Studies

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Universities of Wisconsin System


The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s (UWM) work on microcredentialing began in the fall of 2021, and new policy was approved in spring of 2022. UWM defines a for-credit microcredential as a “a small program of study that provides specified competencies that contribute to the needs of communities, industries and students. [Microcredentials] are smaller than degrees, majors, minors, certificates, concentrations, and other such credentials, in the range of 6-12 credits.”

UWM has been offering long-form certificates, generally 15 or more credits, for many years. The motivation for microcredentials builds off the potential of short-form learning to aid student recruitment, to signal student competencies, to motivate and retain students, to aid in the stackability of learning experiences, to be portable across degrees, and to engage employees and employers in developing upskilling/reskilling opportunities. While much of UWM’s efforts around microcredentials are still young, they are rooted in our considerable experience in online programs and competency-based education. In some respects, microcredentials have the potential to enhance and expand our online and CBE offerings. 

In fall 2021, a provost-charged working group conducted a landscape analysis and made recommendations on a microcredential initiative for UWM. The working group was composed of faculty, deans (including the interim dean of the Graduate School), Academic Affairs staff (who served as co-leads) and other administrators, plus a graduate program director interested in piloting the microcredential concept. We looked closely at SUNY’s work in microcredentials to gain an understanding of guiding principles and best practices. These were guideposts for us as we fashioned our principles, policies and practices, in particular, pertinent to (1) quality, (2) developing microcredentials for market needs, and (3) looking at how microcredentials would dovetail into our industry partnerships. 

This process led to a robust microcredential policy. Given our processes for shared governance and academic policy approval, we have tried to make development and implementation as easy as possible. Academic Affairs web pages were created to provide access to these institutional policies, as well as a Microcredentials Toolkit ( to assist faculty in developing microcredentials within their academic programs. 

UWM’s microcredential policy applies to both graduate and undergraduate credit-bearing microcredentials. It is designed to reduce the administrative burden of microcredentials, and it focuses on discipline-specific skills and (similar to SUNY’s policy) on the career readiness competencies defined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. At the graduate level, the policy stipulates that all credit must be earned at UWM, unless the microcredential is part of a multi-institutional collaborative offering. 

As we were developing the microcredential policy, we worked through the shared governance process, deliberately seeking, and receiving, faculty and administration buy-in. Generating buy-in for this process in a shared governance environment, the question becomes, will anyone be interested? One way to garner support from faculty and leadership is to survey students on their interest in microcredentials, and how likely they are to enroll. We surveyed both undergraduates and graduate students. Many of our graduate students thought they would be ‘moderately’ or ‘extremely likely’ to take a microcredential; and many thought they would find these microcredentials very beneficial. When students were asked whether they thought future undergraduate or graduate students would find microcredentials appealing, more than 80% indicated they thought these short-form credentials would be very appealing. 

An important aspect of implementing microcredentials was working with the Registrar’s Office, Advising and the Graduate School to design the process flow from student enrollment and advising to the awarding of transcripted credit and awarding a badge upon completion. 

We are using the Canvas Credentials badging platform in our Canvas Learning Management System. Digitally embedded into the badge is information about microcredential competencies. For example, UWM’s Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan—a microcredential in UWM’s Social Work program—lists seven associated competencies, including being able to “employ active listening and empathic responding skills when working with client systems affected by depression and suicide.”

In Development/On the Drawing Board

UWM has 20 microcredentials in the academic approval pipeline for fall 2024 (graduate and undergraduate), with around 40% at the graduate level. Plans are to see at least 10 more developed and approved by fall 2025 (graduate/undergraduate). Microcredentials are planned in these areas (graduate-level offerings are listed with an asterisk*):

  • Interprofessional Leadership in Healthcare
  • Three stackable microcredentials in Interpreting and Translation* 
  • Four stackable microcredentials in Non-profit Management* 
  • Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan
  • AI for K-12*
  • Environmental Policy
  • Conservation & Environmental Sciences (specific topic to be determined)
  • Climate Change
  • Biological Sciences (specific topic to be determined)
  • Digital Arts & Culture
  • Understanding Autistic Individuals
  • Essential Statistics in Applied Contexts
  • Instructional Design*
  • Peace Education in Schools & Communities*
  • Antiracist Education 
  • American Sign Language

Also on the drawing board is the Career Pathways Initiative at UWM. This is an effort to take what we know about students’ interests in short-form learning and their desires to blend formal and informal learning across the career span, using microcredentials, credit for prior learning, and multiple access points to higher education—from high school to advanced graduate learning. We're looking at our partnerships and learning what our industry partners expect from us. Career Pathways are designed to allow for flexibility in how learning is accessed, acquired, and stacked throughout the individual learner’s career trajectory. UWM recognizes that learning increasingly:

  • Is interwoven with careers across an employee’s lifespan.
  • Occurs in a short format, such as microcredentials.
  • Blends formal and informal learning, credit and noncredit.
  • Is powered by strategic partnerships.

Our Career Pathways Initiative is occurring in three areas: 

  1. Credit-bearing Microcredentials. As outlined above, credit-bearing microcredentials are a key element in this initiative and in UWM’s efforts to build industry partnerships.
  2. Noncredit Microcredentials and Certificates. UWM’s School of Continuing Education (SCE), is developing its microcredential array, adhering to the quality principles outlined in the policy for credit-bearing microcredentials. Four non-credit microcredentials are currently offered:
    • Python
    • Professional Presentation
    • Building Teams
    • Trauma Counseling

Note that credit for prior learning is a component of SCE’s microcredentialing work. The Trauma Counseling micro-credential has been approved by UWM Social Work faculty for six graduate credits toward the Master’s of Social Work program.

  1. Strategic Partnerships. The Career Pathways Initiative has a significant partner in the Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA). HERA is a collaboration of 17 southeastern Wisconsin public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, also including a network of community and economic development partners. HERA’s main goals are to enable students to complete college and earn academic credentials, develop innovations in curriculum and delivery, and expand the connection to talent bridges with employers. HERA works with all 17 institutions and has developed a website that includes a regional microcredential catalog. 

HERA also has a collaborative involving UW-Milwaukee, the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, Milwaukee School of Engineering, and Waukesha County Technical College to develop an AI microcredential. UWM plans to provide credit for prior learning for this and additional noncredit microcredentials as they are developed. 

The Wisconsin System is looking to pursue a microcredentials initiative in conjunction with our online growth initiative and workforce development partnerships. UW System’s online growth strategic plan is a systemwide initiative that is being implemented this year. Microcredentialing is seen as an opportunity for UW institutions to connect with employers throughout the state. Several initiatives are ongoing in this area, including staff who are engaging the state’s workforce development and industry partners to develop a needs assessment on the microcredentials and certificates that are of greatest need to them. In addition, the UW System is collaborating on workforce development grants that include microcredentials. 

Key Successes and Challenges

Key Successes Key Challenges
Shared Governance: UW–Milwaukee was the first UW institution to approve a microcredential policy. This is helpful to guide further developments at other institutions. We expect more institutions to build out their microcredential offerings.  Return on Investment: There are questions from our campuses about the extent to which microcredentials will have an impact on enrollment and persistence. Note that UWM is building out its microcredential array with existing courses or with grant funding (as is the case for the Suicide Prevention microcredential), and that student metrics will be tracked to gauge impact over time.
Academic and Industry Partnerships: UWM has strong academic and industry partnerships that help focus the development of workforce–ready microcredentials. We are striving to better meet our workforce needs throughout the region and state and generate employer awareness about what types of microcredentials and certificates are available at our institutions. A Dearth of Data on Certificates: From a system perspective, we have more than 850 credit-bearing credentials throughout the 13 UW universities. However, we lack sufficient data about how these credentials connect to academic programs: Are they connected to a degree program in which you must be enrolled to pursue the credential? Are the credentials structured so that you must be enrolled in any degree program at a UW institution in order to take the certificate? Can someone enroll as a non-degree-seeking student and take the credit-bearing credential? Are the credentials available fully online or only in person? How are career pathways built with microcredentials? Not knowing exactly what we have in the credential space creates barriers to marketing and connecting to industry partners. 
Competition from Third-party Providers: Industry (e.g., Amazon), MOOCs, and others are entering the credential space, increasing saturation, complicating consumers’ decision-making, and requiring more marketing and stronger industry relationships.


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