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Micro-Credentials vs. a Degree – What’s Best?

In this article, OMNI Senior Consultant Roger Dusing, PhD, explores the broad number of credentials – or micro-credentials – are available as alternatives or supplements to a college degree. Rather than earning a full degree, someone can learn enough information about a specific topic in order to earn a certification in that area of expertise. While a college degree offers a measure of certainty for prospective employers regarding an applicant’s knowledge, many employers are concerned about how to validate micro-credentials.

Discussion about the “value” of a college degree has surged in recent times. Clearly, college is not for everyone – it never has been – but given the increasing costs of higher education, is there still value to a bachelor’s degree?

I will contend that the value of attending college goes well beyond the material that is learned in class. A solid liberal arts degree teaches the student how to solve problems, how to communicate, how to work with others, and – maybe most importantly – how to learn. But let’s put that aside for now.

An increasingly broad number of credentials – called micro-credentials – are available as alternatives to a college degree. Rather than earning a full degree, someone can learn enough information about a specific topic in order to earn a certification in that area of expertise. You can earn a certification on a software product (e.g., Microsoft certifications), or a cost-reduction technique (e.g., six-sigma). You can earn badges to show proficiency. You can earn certificates that prove you’ve passed a course. This explosion of ways for individuals to claim that they have some particular bit of knowledge can be overwhelming. What is a business supposed to do with that?

When you consider an applicant with a degree in business administration from an accredited university, you immediately have a sense of what that entails. While there are some variations, you can be confident that in addition to the general education requirements, this applicant has likely completed courses in general business, accounting, management, marketing, human resources, and perhaps international business. If they have a degree in nursing, they have learned biology, chemistry, and all facets of how to care for sick people. But if they come to you with a badge – what does that really mean?

Recently, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (also known as UPCEA), and Collegis Education (a technology services provider for colleges) conducted a survey of 510 employers and asked them about the use of micro-credentials. While the respondents were generally positive, they had some concerns.

Almost all respondents saw benefits to micro-credentials. Over 70% felt that accepting micro-credentials helped them fill jobs and improved the quality of their workforce. Unfortunately, about half were not sure how to validate the credentials, or the knowledge that supported them. Employers expressed a strong desire to work with colleges to design the curriculum to support micro-credentials, but less than half have been asked to do so.

Regardless of the fate of the basic undergraduate degree, micro-credentials are here to stay. Until a comprehensive registry is established, organizations will need to do some due diligence to understand what each credential means, and what value that brings to their organization. But you’re not alone: OMNI Human Resource Management is here to help you navigate this new landscape, bringing nearly 25 years of experience in filling C-Suite, leadership, and mid-level roles, for a full range of nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Roger Dusing, PhD, is a Senior Consultant and the Higher Education Practice Leader at OMNI. He previously served as Chief Human Resource Officer at Park University for eleven years. With over 40 years of HR experience, including 30 years in C-suite level roles, he looks forward to reflecting his passion for higher education in his work to bring affordable, high-quality HR services to small- to medium-sized colleges and universities. 

Roger holds a PhD in Business Management, with a concentration in Human Resources from Northcentral University, a Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University. He also authored the book “I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable About the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another.”

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