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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

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The Graduate/Professional Education Space

Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

The Graduate/Professional Education Space

Graduate education is a major part of the U.S. higher education system; therefore, any effort to move to an incremental credentialing system will affect all levels of education, including graduate education. To explore these developments, Credential As You Go and the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) joined forces in January 2024 to host a Summit on Making the Case for Incremental Credentialing at the Graduate Level. The Summit shared developments in incremental credentialing in graduate/professional education and identified many issues for key audiences to consider. Those audiences include state systems of higher education, higher education institutions, employers, policymakers (federal and state), and other groups—including intermediaries such as CGS. 

Nationally and globally, there are signs of a shift from a “degree-only” curriculum in postsecondary education. Some state governments no longer require a degree to be employed in certain jobs, and some employers are demonstrating that what they really need is to know what a job applicant has learned, not necessarily using degrees as a proxy for this learning. Small credentials (those requiring less than a degree) can describe learning in ways that are more recognizable to employers. They can show employers that, even if a student lacks a degree, he or she still has achieved components of the degree and may possess the knowledge and skills necessary to do the job.

At the undergraduate level, millions of adults are left in limbo when they leave college with advanced credits but no credential to show for it. The National Student Clearinghouse (2023) reports that 40.4 million individuals have some college credits but no credential. The Clearinghouse reports do not include learners who left graduate-level programs, yet CGS research finds that significant numbers of graduate-level learners left their institution without completing a credential. Research on doctoral completion rates and attrition patterns alone found that under highly favorable conditions, no more than three-quarters of students who entered doctoral programs completed their degrees (CGS, 2008, 2010). So there is no doubt that nationwide there are more than 40.4 million individuals in the some college/no credential category when graduate level learners are included. (According to the institutions responding to CGS’ annual survey in Fall 2022, more than 1.8 million students enrolled in graduate programs. According to Fall term enrollments reported by the National Student Clearinghouse in 2024, roughly 3.1 million were enrolled in a graduate-level program in 2023.)

The lack of a degree or other credential often creates a stigma—even though many students acquire significant learning before leaving their programs. It is simply unfair when learning gained along the graduate/professional pathway goes unrecognized. Students’ hard work should be rewarded, even if they fall short of a credential. 

There is growing concern about leaving students hanging—including those who enrolled with no intention of earning a degree or who dropped out because of family or financial circumstances. Graduate students can be left hanging as well. For example,  students who do all the required coursework and examinations for a doctorate—but not the dissertation—are informally called ABDs (all but dissertation). These individuals typically receive no formal recognition of their learning, even though it is substantial at the doctoral level. 

Solutions for recognizing learning are emerging in some departments, schools, and disciplines within universities. Some shorter-term and skills-oriented credentials are being developed—credit and noncredit—both as stand-alone offerings and in combination with degrees. Examples are especially growing in information technology, health care, cybersecurity, teacher education, and business (especially Master’s of Business Administration programs). 

Four basic approaches are emerging:

  • Embedding industry certifications into degree programs, particularly at the master’s degree level.
  • Developing certificate programs that are shorter-term than master’s and doctoral degrees to meet student interests and employer needs.
  • Developing short-term, skills-oriented microcredentials, badges, or other credentials to enable individuals to qualify for careers in other fields. Such credentials especially benefit individuals who hold graduate-level humanities degrees and seek entry into other careers.
  • Developing short-term, skills-oriented, advanced-level microcredentials, badges, or other shorter credentials to assist with upskilling or reskilling. Such credentials are increasingly sought by individuals employed in high-level careers.

These developments are occurring at a time when many employers are calling on higher education to do more to prepare new workers for high-demand industries and to help upskill and reskill the current workforce. Graduate-level educators face a growing challenge: how to meet the changing needs of employers while providing individuals with the high-quality programs and opportunities they need to succeed in their education and career.

Despite increasing demand, growth in microcredentialing has been uneven at the graduate/professional level. Many programs are still in the consideration stage because of resource constraints, enrollment challenges, and concern that, in the end, these shorter-term credentials may not serve students or employers well. This last concern is perhaps the most significant. Many higher education institutions are hesitant about offering incremental credentials. Their reluctance boils down to concern over quality and integrity: They are wary of any moves that may be perceived to erode quality. Faculty especially need help in understanding the reasons behind offering incremental credentials. What if the quality is diminished? What if short-term credentials take students away from degree programs? 

On the administrative side, student information centers and registrars’ offices are not typically well designed to process an array of credentials, noncredit and credit—especially smaller, more specific credentials such as badges and microcredentials. Institutions often require major improvements in technology and data infrastructure to build a system that supports incremental credentialing. 

The problem facing graduate-level education is twofold. First, whether to embrace the major curricular reforms that a shift to incremental credentialing would require. Second, if such a shift is to be made, how to make it? Should  reforms be tested out at a deliberative pace or in only the most pressing disciplines, or is it better to wait for other institutions to make changes and learn from their experience?

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