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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

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Implications for the Future

Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

Implications for the Future

Credentialing—including degrees, certificates, microcredentials, badges, and other types of incremental credentials—is  a hot topic in graduate/professional education across the country and globally. The field is in flux, with many promising explorations and innovations underway. The potential benefits from this work may be significant, such as:

  • It can create more nimble credentialing that is sensitive to emerging workforce demands.
  • It can build more pathways for students to gain access to graduate/professional education.
  • It offers a low-risk way to test new academic programs.
  • It can aid in the development and improvement of interdisciplinary degrees.

Yet higher education institutions which are the driving force for change (especially the faculty) still hold various perspectives regarding the growing array of nondegree credentials. Many higher education institutions are hesitant to offer incremental credentials at the graduate and professional level—for many reasons discussed in this Playbook.

As higher education institutions and others continue their research and experimentation in incremental credentialing, we can expect it to grow.  But that growth will likely occur in a tumultuous environment. Questions about the adequacy of traditional academic measures of quality such as enrollment and completion; greater emphasis on employer satisfaction and career outcomes; questions about whether shorter-term credentials are better as stand-alone entities or subsumed within a degree; federal Gainful Employment Requirements that will demand evidence; and the rising costs of graduate and professional education.

To respond to these changes in such a climate, institutions will need to market a wider array of credentialing options and reach out to students who are not aware of them. As awareness grows and more institutions embrace multiple credentialing pathways, learners are likely to gravitate to these opportunities, especially if return-on-investment data demonstrates that there is value in credentials beyond degrees, or in hybrid degrees which couple short-term credentials with degrees.

As they look to this future, graduate-level educators should consider a number of key questions that can guide their planning:

  • Will the trend toward nondegree credentialing continue and potentially expand?
  • If this is a trend, will it impact master’s-level education more than Ph.D. level?
  • Are we prepared to credential in smaller increments as graduate students move forward in their educational journeys? For example, will institutions grant a short-term recognition credential that might have value for individuals who are halfway through a master’s program, or who have completed all-but-dissertation in a doctoral program?
  • Will the expansion primarily be in certain disciplines but leave out a large portion of graduate and professional programs?
  • What is needed to support these explorations? Information webinars and conferences?  Research? Collecting case studies of who is working in this arena and what the outcomes are?

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