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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

Main Issues/Questions

Growing attention to microcredentialing in graduate/professional education began with the master's degree because, for much of the past decade, virtually all the growth in graduate enrollment was driven by growth in master's degrees (Graduate Enrollment and Degrees Report, 2023). And the degrees themselves have long been a locus of innovation—in formats, delivery modes, and curricula. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, graduate schools began implementing graduate certificates. At the time they were seen primarily as a complement to existing degree curricula, though some certificate programs allowed employed learner/workers to upskill and reskill (Graduate Enrollment and Degrees Report, 2023). 

More recently, growth in certificate programs has accelerated rapidly. The CGS reports year-over-year growth and the conferral of graduate certificates of around 20% (Graduate Enrollment and Degrees Report, 2023fdfd). Enrollment increases in these programs stem in part from the efforts of graduate administrators and coordinators to offer students cheaper, more flexible ways to obtain graduate degrees and pursue rewarding careers. The growth also reflects a response employer demands— particularly in the dynamic fields of health care, education, data science, and cybersecurity. 

Microcredentials have relevance to graduate/professional education in three key ways:

  • Customization: Microcredentials can create more pathways to graduate-level degree programs which require a substantial commitment of time and resources. Not every prospective student can undertake a full degree program. An incremental approach to credentialing allows students to take the amount of graduate education that works for them, their goals, and frankly, their budget. Incremental credentials allow for a more customized approach to graduate education; degrees  and credentials can be tailored to particular interests, career pathways, or workforce needs. 
  • Collaboration: Microcredentials help foster employer engagement. Graduate schools and graduate programs recognize the need to collaborate with employers, and microcredentialing is one arena to connect to and respond to employer demand. They can work with employers to develop curricula and credentials that help students build the specific skills employers need. 
  • Cost: One of the most pressing issues in higher education is cost, and microcredentials can help address this issue in two ways. First, they allow students to pay incrementally for a degree through stackable certificates. They also enable students to pursue lower-cost standalone certificates or badges in specific skill areas. These include badge-only non-credit offerings at all levels (community college through graduate/professional level).

Because incremental credentialing is a rapidly changing field, it confronts many challenges, including lack of agreement on terminology and language. This imprecision makes it very difficult to discuss and scientifically measure developments in the field. 

At a recent annual meeting of the CGS, participants discussed the difficulty of assessing the quality of these emerging credentials and raised questions such as:

  • Should we use the same quality assessments from microcredentials as we do for degrees? Microcredentials may need to be treated as a separate credential since certificates can qualify for aid, and some of the institutional accreditors have set minimums for credits in certificates, whereas there is no set credit range for microcredentials. 
  • Who should be involved in the assessments? 
  • Since many of these credentials were driven by workforce demand, is the quality of the credential best determined by content mastery or by career outcomes of credential holders? 
  • How do we best gauge learner—and, indeed, employer—demand?
  • Is it true that if you build it, they will come? The new CGS report found that many transcripted post-baccalaureate certificate programs were smaller than expected (fewer than 12 students). Yet, we often hear that the projected enrollment growth is likely to come in microcredential programs. How do we make sure that we're building programs that learners and employers want? 
  • What about the policies we put in place to ensure that struggling programs are changed—or eliminated? 

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