Equity in Education – Economic Mobility Through Alternative Credentials

When we talk about education, we often describe it as a tool for economic mobility. We tell high school kids to go to college, get a degree, and that is the path to a good career. For adult learners, we advocate that they go back to school, finish that degree, get a master’s or a doctorate – easy ways to “get ahead” and enhance their ability to move forward in their careers.

But as the world evolves into a faster-paced and more nimble workplace, the focus has shifted from an emphasis on what degree a potential employee has, to what skills they possess. Those skills are rapidly becoming the employment currency that learners need, because that’s what employers say they’re looking for (81% according to this report agree that “Organisations should hire based on skills rather than degrees”). 

Enter alternative credentials – skills-based and short-form learning, such as certificate programs, trade schools and micro-credentials. Rather than being based on a broad curriculum, these skills- and knowledge-based credentials focus on one thing: qualifying the learner for a specific job or certifying skills they possess. Both share the goal of moving an individual from learner to earner

This raises the question again, and from a different angle, about the perceived value of degrees and whether alternative credentials are the answer when it comes to economic mobility. Here is some information and some concepts to consider. 

Degrees: A Perception Problem

We’ve shared before that four-year degrees have a perception problem. In a recent survey, 5% less respondents agreed that postsecondary education offers a good return on investment, 75% today down from 80% in 2020.

The news is worse when you survey young people, the next generation of postsecondary learners. More students are opting for trade school, community college and even on the job training. This is, in part, due to the fact that they see their parents (in the US specifically) saddled with high student debt and often working jobs that don’t support paying those loans back quickly. Of course, governments are trying to help, including a student loan forgiveness program put in place by President Joe Biden and other changes around the world.

Even without considering the financial burden, there are investments of time and personal effort with four-year degrees that younger learners may shy away from. But there is another aspect of these facts as well. Minority students are less likely to enter college in the first place, receive scholarships less often, and frequently graduate with more student debt compared to white students.

In addition, these students have a harder time getting hired once their education is complete. Behind all of this is a painful truth about economic mobility that we must acknowledge and examine. 


The Painful Truth

First, let’s look at the plus side of adult learners returning to higher education, to either finish degrees or obtain advanced degrees. These learners are 22% more likely to move up in their career fields and to get raises than their peers who don’t go back to school. 

Why? Well, in part, advanced degrees are perceived as evidence of skills obtained. And employers are finding it difficult to find and hire people who have those skills. At the same time, universities face declining enrolments. Recruiting adult learners who return to school can offset these losses.

But unfortunately, advanced degrees don’t level the playing field equally. While advanced degrees generally result in higher-paying jobs and greater personal satisfaction, these results vary by race and ethnicity. Much like the increased financial burden minority students face, even those who seek advanced degrees don’t see the same outcomes as their white counterparts.

In fact, minority recipients of advanced degrees have similar employment outcomes to those of white and Asian-Americans with Bachelor’s degrees. This is not just a US problem. In Australia, foreign students face an uphill battle to get hired thanks in part to a convoluted visa system. 

As a result, these learners are seeking alternative credentials and pursuing non-traditional paths into the workplace, and employers are taking notice. Does this mean degrees are irrelevant and the true path to economic mobility lies in micro and other alternative credentials? 

It’s a good question, and one that points to real solutions.

Real Solutions

First, it’s important to outline a couple of key points. The first is that alternative credentials cannot replace degrees in many fields, nor should they attempt to. Careers like engineering, law, medicine and others require broad knowledge and specific skills that are best learned in a degree environment. In almost all of these cases, an advanced degree is essential or at least preferred. 

Nor should we ever decry the wide knowledge that a degree provides. In our recent Skills Meet-Up, one participant observed that employers look at skills, while educators look at knowledge. That knowledge is not only valuable, but often through completing a degree program a learner learns how to learn, equipping them to provide additional future value through education.

So in that way, alternative credentials can be part of a degree program or can be added either during or after the degree to enhance learner skills and activate economic mobility. However, there are cases where alternative credentials are the only path for learners.

According to a recent SHRM report: 

  • Workers like alternative credentials and nearly three-quarters of U.S. workers (72%) agree they are an affordable way to gain the skills and/or experience necessary to enter a new field or advance in their current one, and 77% said having an alternative credential related to the job they are applying for increases their chances of being hired
  • According to executives (87 percent), supervisors (81 percent) and especially HR professionals (90 percent), alternative credential holders bring additional value and skills to the workplace
  • Alternative credentials reveal untapped talent, especially in an employee’s market
  • Alternative credentials make it easier for diverse candidates to get hired, according to 81 percent of executives, 71 percent of supervisors and 59 percent of HR professionals
  • Nearly half of organisations use automated pre-screening in reviewing resumes, but only one-third of those automated systems (32 percent) recognise alternative credentials

In other words, more employers than ever are using alternative credentials to hire, and that means more diversity in the workplace and more opportunity for diverse learners. 

These credentials, badges, or certifications are designed around acknowledging competency in a certain area. They certify skills and knowledge related to a certain occupation, or sometimes a particular aspect of an occupation. 

These competencies, or skills, are the currency of learning, and will increasingly become more important over time. This means that higher education must think differently about transcripts, personal evidence records, and even recognition of higher learning if they intend to survive

Clearly a reset of some sort is needed, but what does this mean really?


The Future of Educators A New Standard

In the survey regarding changing perceptions of higher education we referenced above, respondents overwhelmingly agreed (93 percent) that colleges and universities should provide the public with data on key performance indicators, such as graduation or employment rates. It’s not about how many graduates crossed a stage, but how many of them shook hands with an employer and landed a job. 

Of course, there are things that skew employment statistics after graduation, including personal choices, gap years, and continuing education. But if we shift the conversation toward employability rather than employment, the discussion changes to “what does this degree do for the learner?”

Academics are understandably concerned about the potential drop in liberal arts education enrolment. An English degree might not lead to immediate employment or even employability, but it can lead to the next great Australian novelist or the next prolific poet who documents the emotion of our generation. And in a way, they are right. 

In fact, there is a line of thinking that leans toward rating higher ed by economic mobility rather than grades and graduation rates. In other words, when this learner leaves our institution are they better off than when they started?

This is no longer a rhetorical or philosophical question, but one tied to economics, employment, and the ROI any education offers. Alternative credentials such as micro-credentials and industry certifications seem to offer more direct evidence of learner outcomes

The recent 2022 Strada Outcomes Survey identified that “graduates who developed key skills during college earned about US$8,700 more in their first year after graduation than peers who reported low levels of skill development”. How can institutions identify and provide evidence of skills learners have obtained? Certainly one option is through the use of Credential Evidence Platforms such as Credentialate.

The Answer?

Are alternative credentials the answer to economic mobility? Probably not entirely. But as part of a new way of looking at skills rather than just degrees, competencies rather than a grade, and revamping personal evidence records and recognition of prior learning, they’ll certainly play a large role.

But while we love to continue the conversation about education reform and the hope that alternative credentials can provide, we’re at a crossroads. It’s time for the conversation to turn to actionable plans, and actionable plans to transition to the actions that follow. 

Because the answer lies in doing. And if we’re going to inspire and implement change, it’s time to get to work. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are some links you may find of interest:

  • Get Across the Skills Basics
    Skills are the building blocks, the translation piece and the common language at the intersection of learners, learning institutions and employers.

    The Skills Ecosystem is a dynamic and constantly evolving landscape. Credentialate sits at the centre of this ecosystem, and acts as the Skills Core, the connective tissue that integrates with each segment so that you can work within the entire ecosystem.

    Credentialate makes skills visible, allowing connection from your curriculum to recognition of learning. To understand the Skills Ecosystem properly, you need to understand how skills relate to the core and secondary segments of the market. Browse a range of information and resources that help put skills and the Skills Ecosystem into context.

  • Connect the Dots in the Skills Economy with Credentialate
    How does Credentialate connect the dots between the skills in your curriculum, rich skill descriptors (RSD) and learner data? How does it align skills to frameworks and job market data? What personal, evidence-rich information is included with the digital badges?

    Discover how to Centralise your learner data and convert it into a structured, machine readable format. Capture and collect evidence of the skills present in your curriculum and align to frameworks. Simplify data complexity to make the path clearer and data mobility seamless.

  • Personal Evidence Records from Credentialate
    Credentialate is the world’s first Credential Evidence Platform and is currently the only platform that systematically provides personal qualitative and quantitative evidence of learner-level achievement. This level of granular evidence equips the learner to identify, articulate and speak to their unique strengths.

    The Credentialate Personal Evidence Record can be created for learners who meet set criteria through automation, reducing the cost of human resources and enabling you to scale fast.

  • What Credentialate Integration Looks Like
    The Credentialate platform is very powerful and flexible in what it can do. We work closely with you to understand your goals, your challenges and data flow and offer a range of included and add-on consulting services. We work collaboratively with you to help deliver on project objectives.

Connect with us

As the world’s first Credential Evidence Platform, Credentialate helps you discover and share evidence of workplace skills. It creates a highly interoperable skills infrastructure that connects, collates and creates order from chaotic or dark data. It identifies skills in the curriculum, maps them to globally recognised skill definitions and aligns to frameworks. Institutions can manage and track skills attainment across the institution, against frameworks and see where improvements can be made. For each learner, a personal evidence record is created – as unique as every learners’ journey. Rich skills information, qualitative and quantitative performance data and links to artefacts of learning are baked into a verifiable digital badge that can be shared. This gives learners the confidence to speak to their strengths, the evidence to prove it and boosts their employability by sending a ‘ready-to-hire’ signal.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.

Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

Read more on the Edalex blog series as we explore who stakeholders in the modern credential marketplace are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face:

  • Final-Stakeholders-Modern-Credential-Marketplace-1200x685 Lens on Learners – how can micro-credentials help today’s learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators – if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?  
  • Lens on Employers – how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?


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