Exploring the Role of Credentials Versus Degrees

Will digital badges and certificates replace traditional degrees?

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Completing a traditional degree isn’t the only pathway into the STEM workforce. Increasingly, workers have various ways of proving their skills to employers, including through earning certificates, digital badges, Massive Open Online Courses and a range of other options.

Allowing people to use these credentials to prove their workforce readiness may be the key to filling the jobs of the future, a panel of experts said Thursday at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Washington, D.C.

Featured speakers included Kyle D. Bowen, director of education technology at Penn State University; Peggie Ward Koon, president of the International Society of Automation; and Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at American Council on Education. Barbara Endel, program director for Jobs for the Future, moderated the discussion.

Endel kicked off the discussion by explaining that while universities report feeling confident they are graduating students ready for the workforce, employers tend to feel otherwise.

While that’s a “disturbing disconnect worth exploring,” she said fortunately prospective employees have other ways of illustrating their skills.

“Even short term credentials in the IT and other STEM fields essentially can lead to sustainable wages,” she says.

[EXPLORE: The Best STEM High Schools]

Sandeen, with ACE, opened her remarks with several statistics.

By the year 2018, she said, 63 percent of the jobs in this country will require some level of some post-secondary education, a good portion of which will be in the STEM fields. To meet that demand, she said we “need a post-secondary credential that is less than a degree.”

Sandeen highlighted a program called ACE credit recommendation, in which people can get academic credit for formal training done outside of academia. Under the program, which can trace its roots to the 1950s, a panel of faculty judge someone’s training to determine whether the knowledge could translate into credit. If the experience is deemed credit worthy, people can take the credit recommendation to their institution of choice and ask that it be accepted.

[READ: How to Complete an Online Degree via Credit by Exam]

Sandeen said she’s been working with colleges and universities to explore the idea of credentialing.

“Many are attuned, but not all are, to the benefits of the system,” she said.

Koon, of the International Society of Automation, opened her comments with a few general thoughts on the STEM fields.

While many women are qualified to hold STEM jobs, too few take up positions in the fields, she said. She also noted that when she was in school, there was a large emphasis on science and math. Schools will need to return to that emphasis for the country to be able to fill the jobs of the future, she said.

Koon outlined five game-changing trends she believed were impacting the STEM community: big data, cybersecurity, the aging workforce, Massive Open Online Courses and STEM advocacy, which she believes will play a positive role in creating a more prepared workforce.

“Advocacy is game changing,” she said. “Today there is more awareness than ever of the need for STEM education. We have the demand but we really don’t have the supply.”

Bowen, with Penn State University, gave a review of open badgesand how they might benefit today’s students and employees.

“In our instructional system now, our credentials lack nuance,” said Bowen, who emphasized that grades can only tell so much.

With open badges – digital credentials verified by a legitimate authority -- employers have a way of seeing just what skills a person has mastered, he said.

Open badges are a great development because they are versatile, verifiable and shareable, he said. They may have the potential to “disrupt” higher education, he explained, but they should be embraced rather than feared.

“The future is a system of credentials that recognize learning in all of its forms,” he said.




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  • Devon Haynie

    Devon Haynie is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering online education. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at dhaynie@usnews.com.