Credential As You Go Co-Leads Nan Travers and Holly Zanville on EdUp Experience Podcast

Add Your Heading Text Here

Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

Playbook Sections

Additional Resources

Key Factors That Differentiate Graduate and Professional Studies from Undergraduate Education

Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

Key Factors That Differentiate Graduate and Professional Studies from Undergraduate Education

Those who advocate development of incremental credentials—or credentialing systems—at the graduate/professional level would do well to consider how graduate education differs from that at the undergraduate level. Key audiences for this information include federal and state policymakers; leaders in state systems of higher education; higher education administrators and faculty; and researchers at think tanks and intermediary organizations. Major areas for differentiation occur in curriculum, delivery, and timeline; collaboration among faculty and peers; expectations; and learning/performance verification systems.

Curriculum, Delivery, Timeline

Specialization and Depth Graduate and professional programs typically offer specialized courses and opportunities for in-depth study within a particular field or discipline. Unlike undergraduate education which provides a broad overview, graduate education moves toward treater depth into specific topics. Students are often encouraged to tailor their studies to their interests, to begin to specialize more than would be expected at the undergraduate level.
Research Emphasis  Graduate education typically places a strong emphasis on research. Students are often expected to engage in scholarly inquiry, produce original research, and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their field. Examples: conducting experiments, writing dissertations, publishing academic papers.
Advanced Curriculum Graduate programs typically offer more advanced coursework than undergraduate programs. The curricula are designed to challenge students to master complex theories, methodologies, and practices within a chosen field. Relevancy of content (advancements in the field) is key to enabling programs to stay current with workforce changes, especially in STEM fields.
Applied Programs and Professional Development  Professional programs such as law, medicine, business, health care, and social work often incorporate practical training and experiential learning to prepare students for careers. These may include internships, externships, clinical rotations, or hands-on projects.
Flexible Scheduling Many graduate programs offer flexible scheduling options to enable learners to balance their studies with employment or other commitments. This can include evening or weekend classes, online courses, or part-time enrollment.
Smaller class size Graduate and professional programs often offer smaller class sizes (e.g., seminars, research projects, performance courses in art and music).
Timeline issues: cost, part vs. fulltime Given the amount of time it often takes for students to complete coursework and conduct original research, especially in doctoral programs, it can take a doctoral student 10 years to complete a degree. Since many students are unable to attend graduate school full time, the extended timeline for degree completion may not be viable for many, especially given the cost of graduate-level programs.   

Collaboration with Faculty and Peers

Close Collaboration with Faculty  Graduate students often work closely with faculty mentors and advisors, especially in STEM disciplines where lab sciences are critical to advanced research. Students’ benefits often include personalized guidance, mentorship, and collaboration on research projects.
Peer Learning and Networking Graduate education allows students to engage with peers who share similar academic and professional interests; this fosters collaboration, networking, and the exchange of ideas.


Higher Expectations Graduate and professional programs generally have higher academic standards and expectations than undergraduate programs. Students are expected to demonstrate a greater level of expertise, critical thinking, analytical skills, and discipline (work ethic).
Admissions Requirements Graduate and professional programs often have more stringent admission requirements than undergraduate programs, including prerequisites, standardized tests (such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT) and professional experience.

Learning/Performance Verification Systems

Licensing and Certification Professional programs—such as law, medicine, and engineering—may require students to obtain specific licenses or certifications to practice in their field. Graduate education is expected to prepare students for these requirements through specialized training and coursework.

These differences between graduate/professional education and undergraduate education create  challenges for students, institutions, and policymakers with regard to incremental credentialing. For example, those planning microcredential options at the graduate level should consider:

  • Quality Assurance and Standards: Establish clear quality assurance measures for microcredentials—defining standards for content, assessment, and credentialing processes to ensure that microcredentials maintain a high level of academic and professional rigor. There will be standards in professional programs that especially apply to industry hiring regulations (e.g., licensing).  
  • Alignment with Industry Needs: Work closely with industries to identify emerging skills and ensure that the microcredentials offered are aligned with current and emerging workforce needs. Regular industry consultations can help maintain credentials’ relevance.
  • Credit Transferability and Recognition: Develop mechanisms for the smooth transfer of credits between microcredentials and traditional graduate programs. Credential providers should work to create a system where these microcredentials are recognized by employers and other educational institutions.
  • Financial Accessibility: Explore ways to make microcredentialing financially accessible, e.g.,  financial aid, scholarships, or subsidies to reduce the financial burden on learners—especially those who already hold significant student debt.
  • Integration with Higher Education Institutions: Encourage collaboration between traditional higher education institutions and alternative education providers offering microcredentials. This collaboration can help maintain academic standards and ensure that microcredentials complement existing graduate programs.
  • Data Security and Privacy: As microcredentials often involve digital badges or certificates, credential providers need to address issues related to data security and privacy. Ensuring the secure storage and sharing of credentials is essential to maintain the integrity of the microcredentialing system.
  • Lifelong Learning, Upskilling and Reskilling: Recognize the role of microcredentialing in supporting lifelong learning and reskilling efforts. This may involve creating policies that incentivize individuals to pursue microcredentials as a way to adapt to changing industry demands and ensure continuous professional development.
  • Technology Infrastructure: Support the development and maintenance of robust technology infrastructure and invest in systems that facilitate the creation, verification, and secure sharing of digital credentials.
  • Public Awareness and Communication: Engage in public awareness campaigns to inform learners, employers, and educational institutions about the value of microcredentials. Clear communication can help dispel misconceptions and ensure broad acceptance.
  • Regulatory Framework: Work with accrediting agencies to develop a regulatory framework that supports innovation while maintaining quality. Such a framework is essential to balancing the need for flexibility in microcredentialing with the responsibility to protect learners from unscrupulous providers

Share Section

Improving Education and Employment Outcomes