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It’s Time to Change What We Mean by ‘Credential’

By Sean Gallagher October 23, 2016 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Today it is widely accepted — if often still debated — that job preparation is one of the fundamental purposes of higher education. College-issued credentials play a major role in the way employers evaluate talent and make hiring decisions, and have become increasingly valuable in our modern economy. Although important experiments and challenges to the primacy of the college degree are percolating, higher-education credentials such as degrees and certificates remain the gold standard in hiring. But if colleges want to remain relevant, they must be more innovative in designing and evaluating the credentials they award.

We live in an age in which there is lots of innovation, but also many questions, related to the sustainability of higher-education business models, which are founded on the production of such credentials as degrees and certificates. According to data from the job-market-analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, half of the 27 million job postings over the course of 2015 required a bachelor’s degree or above.

However, aligning higher education with employers’ hiring needs is a moving target, because of rapidly evolving corporate practices and skills demands, as well as an increasingly competitive and global market for job talent. Greater change is occurring today in how employers identify and acquire talent than at any point in the past 30 years, as research for my new book on academic credentials has shown. This has the potential to reshape the utility of higher-education credentials as job qualifications. The innovation in hiring is fueled by the rise of “talent strategy” (making the identification of strong future candidates a corporate priority); the availability of new technologies and tools such as cloud-based human-resource systems; and the new and improved ability to track and analyze human capital and performance data on a large scale.

Nervousness over the economy and questions about the value of a college degree have contributed to growing expectations that colleges must make career services a priority. This special report on innovation examines some of the career-counseling efforts underway — by colleges, start-ups, and collaborations between the two.

Many colleges are turning to such partners to create new types of linkages to the job market. However, it is not enough for colleges to simply employ stopgap measures or look to outside partners alone. More-fundamental change is needed in how institutions think about, design, and produce credentials, arguably their most prominent product. Colleges would be wise not to cede their market position and their employer relationships to start-up companies or emerging degree substitutes from a lack of vision, nimbleness, market orientation, or investment capital.

Colleges can take a number of steps to enhance the job-market value of their academic credentials. Among them:

Recognize that employers and industry groups should be involved in the development of curricular offerings. Four-year colleges need to let go of the tired notion that professionally aligned education is too “vocational” and encourage employers, along with faculty members, to take part in designing academic programs (as many community colleges already do). Yes, the skills and competencies demanded by employers are often technical or specialized in nature. But colleges may be surprised to find that some of the most in-demand skills in today’s job market today are analysis, critical thinking, and writing — all of which are at the core of the liberal arts.

Colleges would be wise not to cede their market position and their employer relationships to start-up companies or emerging degree substitutes.

In addition to working with employers to design programs for which there is high demand, colleges should take advantage of new technologies such as job-market analytics software, which can analyze trends across millions of job postings. Such tools make it possible for academic leaders to continuously fine-tune their curricula in a way that wasn’t possible only a few years ago.

Develop and update academic programs more quickly, to match the pace of the job market. Academe’s current systems of curricular design and governance were built for an earlier era. The ability to quickly launch new programs or pivot with the needs of a changing job market is one of the major advantages of today’s popular nonacademic providers of professional credentials, such as Udacity and Pluralsight. Such companies are not constrained by agrarian academic calendars, faculty politics, and annual approval cycles. This type of adjustment is a necessity given the half-life of knowledge in an economy where technologies, skill sets, and even disciplines are constantly evolving.

Create shorter-term program offerings to respond to growing demands for specialized education. As part of the much-discussed “unbundling” of higher education, colleges should not be afraid to break apart the monolithic degree. Particularly in a technology-driven economy, employers are increasingly looking for job candidates who have kept their skills updated and demonstrated initiative through targeted lifelong-learning experiences. The unbundling trend is often positioned as offering affordability and access through alternatives to the traditional degree, but flexible offerings are also popular because they meet growing demands for more specialized programs aligned with specific competencies. While many academic institutions are experimenting with competency-based education, employers are moving toward competency-based hiring, and more rigorously matching actual job requirements to candidates’ abilities. Higher-education credentials must operate at a higher resolution in this new landscape.

Integrate work experience into the curriculum. While the boundaries between education and job experience have always been fluid, employers’ accounts of how they make hiring decisions and students’ accounts of their job-search experiences make clear that both audiences increasingly favor curricular offerings that integrate real-world job experience and work products. Capstone projects offered in some courses are one example; others include e-portfolios, internships, yearlong paid corporate residencies, and cooperative education.

Because such experiences are increasingly taking place in virtual environments and can be tracked digitally, they provide a data trail and digital fingerprint that can enhance the transparency and value of a student’s academic credentials.

The evolution of hiring, the growth of a global work force, and the rise of new technologies need not be thought of as a wave crashing over the bow of higher education, threatening to wash away the value of a college degree. Rather, these shifts create an opportunity for forward-looking colleges to sustain their value by moving beyond century-old thinking about academic credentials.

Sean Gallagher, chief strategy officer for Northeastern University’s Global Network, is the author of The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring (Harvard Education Press, 2016).