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The Beginner's Guide to Microcredentials

Online minidegrees are a simple, increasingly popular way to beef up your skill set or résumé

Unless you went to school for a specific profession, like engineering or medicine, chances are your major won’t always point to the job or career you’ll end up in after college. (Cough, liberal arts majors.) And if you’re a college graduate, you can probably count on one hand the number of times you’ve been asked about your major during a job interview. It might be standard information to include on a résumé, but work experience and professional references tend to better speak to your fitness for a job.

But now there’s a new way to tout your abilities: microcredentials—hyper-focused minidegrees or certifications that prove you know your stuff.

Also called digital badges, microcredentials are similar to old-school merit badges earned by Boy or Girl Scouts when demonstrating their abilities in certain areas. Only in this case, instead of a fabric patch, you get a digital award.

Education Dive has reported that a growing number of professional organizations are developing microcredentials to assess targeted competencies, with employers increasingly looking for them. To meet the rising demand, some colleges have begun offering microcredentials in quantifiable skills, such as coding and web development, as well as softer skills like leadership, empathy, and resilience.

Digital Promise, a nonprofit launched in 2011, also helps connect students with the digital badges. Nearly 400 microcredentials are offered on the organization’s website by dozens of institutions, ranging from Digital Promise itself to Arizona State University to the National Geographic Society. Many programs are free, but some require students to pay for the coursework (anywhere from $25 to $45).

Private companies are also seizing on the opportunity. One is Credly, which helps colleges and companies develop microcredentials. Credly’s website outlines various ways a person can earn badges and translate them into new opportunities, from completing an online course to finding professional speaking opportunities to attending seminars.

Founder and CEO Josh Finkelstein told Education Dive that microcredentials can improve how people show potential employers what they’re good at as well as tell and indicate the value of a school or program. “It’s the beginning of a real movement,” Finkelstein told the site.

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But who’s actually part of that movement? A report released in November by two researchers from Columbia University’s Teachers College shed some light on who is earning microcredentials—and who isn’t.

Fiona Hollands and Aasiya Kazi, who authored the study, found that the “typical completer” of a microcredential is “well-educated, employed, White or Asian, and 36 years old.” The largest concentration of students is from the United States and India, and 85% of completers already had a bachelor’s degree.

That kind of demographic breakdown runs counter to the spirit of microcredentials, Sean Gallagher, the executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northwestern University, told Inside Higher Ed. The badges were meant to help create new opportunities for students beyond traditional college programs. “There’s a lot of work still to do if we want microcredentials … to emerge as an alternative to an undergraduate degree and also to serve a more historically disadvantaged population that has not had access to the institutions that are providing these offerings,” Gallagher said.

“These new programs don’t yet appear to be tickets to job mobility,” he added. Still, microcredentials can be powerful tools not only for job growth but also for boosting retention rates. By showing students the clear connection between higher education and future employment, digital badges could combat the eight-year decline in college enrollment. And by completing multiple microcredential programs each year, students can earn a steady stream of positive reinforcement, which in turn encourages them to complete a college degree.