Will Your Association’s Credentials Become an Alternative to College?

Many young adults who would normally pursue a bachelor’s degree are now questioning the value of a college education. Meanwhile, credentials—certificate programs, certifications, digital credentials and micro-credentials—are becoming a popular supplement to a four-year degree, as well as an affordable alternative to college for those who can’t or won’t pay for expensive tuition. 

Why young adults are seeking an alternative to college

Three main factors are causing young adults to think about other educational options besides a four-year degree program.

#1: Cost of college

A $20,000 tuition in 2000 costs nearly $52,000 now. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college tuition has increased by an average of 5.13% per year—what they call “significant inflation.” In comparison, the overall inflation rate for the same period was 2.04%. 

#2: Student loan debt

In the class of 2018, 69% of college students took out student loans. They graduated with an average loan debt of nearly $30,000. The New America Foundation’s research found that graduate students have a median debt of $57,600, with a quarter of those borrowers owing $100,000 or more. 

A study from Age Wave reported that the average 18 to 34 year old American carries a student loan balance of nearly $37,000. 

These debt burdens are causing young adults to delay milestones such as buying a home or starting a family. Many of them probably can’t even consider joining an association or attending a conference. 

#3: Value of a four-year degree 

According to Age Wave, 36% of the college graduates with student loan debt who participated in their study said that taking on that debt wasn’t worth it. Another study found that only 38% of college students think their education is preparing them well for work. 

Employers aren’t feeling much better about the value of a college education. A Gallup poll found that only 11% of business leaders “strongly agree” that colleges are effectively preparing students for work. The Association of American Colleges and Universities also learned last year that only 33% of business leaders and 39% of hiring managers said recent college graduates are "very well prepared" to apply knowledge and skills gained in college to real-world settings.

After reviewing many studies, it’s safe to say that people with four-year degrees usually earn more than people without degrees. However, these studies are a few years old. It will be interesting to see how the earnings picture changes as more people choose industry credentials over four-year degrees. 

alternative to college

Employers shifting away from degree requirements

Until recently, analysts frequently lamented “degree inflation”—a bachelor’s degree requirement for jobs that traditionally were filled by people with an associate degree or high school diploma. These requirements made it more difficult for people who didn’t have the financial means to attend college to find good paying jobs. 

The Hechinger Report said: 

“Using a four-year degree as a proxy for employability shuts out the most economically vulnerable job seekers. It hurts employers, too. Degree-holders command an 11 to 30 percent wage premium yet fail to justify that premium in productivity and other outcomes.”

Now the push is on to hire people based on their skills, not their academic degrees. Many companies, including Google, Apple, and IBM, no longer require applicants to have college degrees. In fact, at the 2019 digitalNow Conference, Jim Daniels, Sr. Program Manager of Global Digital Credential Strategy at IBM, said, “We believe many employees of the future will not need a bachelor's or associate degree.”

Education hacking movement

An article at Credentialing Insights on education hacking—“the process of designing one’s own education to increase the return on investment”—is another sign of this shift from degrees to credentials. More people are hacking their education due to concerns about the cost, debt implications, and value of a college degree. They’re seeking affordable, short-term, online learning opportunities that are tailored to their needs and preferences.

At the digitalNow Conference, Tracy Petrillo, Chief Learning Officer at the Construction Specifications Institute, advised associations to address this “signal change.” She pointed to the Lumina Foundation as another harbinger of change. The foundation, whose mission is to expand student access to and success in education beyond high school, shifted their focus several years ago from degrees to credentials. 

The foundation’s fact sheet explains their new focus: 

“Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. We envision a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials.” [emphasis added]

Competency-based hiring

The Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy found that 64% of the HR leaders they surveyed said the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand higher levels of education and more credentials in the future, even for entry-level and lower skill jobs. 

Associations are well positioned to help train new and experienced professionals throughout their careers. As employers look beyond degrees and seek to find employees who can demonstrate competencies, a digital badge, certification, certificate, or micro-credential becomes a valuable way for hiring managers to validate a job seeker’s skills.

alternative to college

Next steps for associations

Back in 2012, Jeff Cobb of Tagoras called for associations to take on a more significant role in the lifelong learning market.  He said: 

“Clearly, when it comes to refreshing, retooling, and acquiring entirely new skills, associations are an invaluable – and generally undervalued – part of our education system… As far as I can tell, we do not yet seem to be offering much of a voice in the public conversation about the growing skill (and knowledge) gap and the critical need for effective lifelong learning… Where are the leaders articulating the challenge and seizing the opportunity?”

Since then, colleges and universities as well as LinkedIn Learning and other online for-profit education platforms have entered the lifelong learning market. Associations must act quickly or risk losing market share to these well-funded competitors. 

Revisit requirements for credentialing programs

The Credentialing Insights article raised a valid point about association credentialing programs: are degree requirements really necessary? 

“In many instances, the rationales for this practice may be debatable even today, but will be more likely to raise questions of fairness as more people enter the workplace with the skills requisite to competence but without a post-secondary degree.”

Assess your requirements to ensure they’re not excluding professionals who are otherwise qualified to pursue a credential. 

Increase awareness of credentialing programs

Don’t only promote your credentialing programs to members. Expand your marketing to students, college and university career center staff, young professionals, and industry employers. Make sure they’re aware of your credentialing programs and understand the importance of these credentials for validating competencies. 

Publish your association’s credentials on the Credential Engine, a nonprofit registry of educational credentials. 

Expand marketing to education hackers

How can your association support and serve education hackers? Credentialing Insights recommends providing resources such as self-assessments and mentoring programs. Offer digital badges so education hackers can publicly display their certifications. 

Map out learning pathways for different professional goals so education hackers can visualize the journey ahead and identify the programs they must complete to achieve those goals. Think beyond e-learning programs; become the premier career center for students and professionals in your industry

Partner with higher education and employers

Given the limited resources of many associations, it might be better to partner with colleges and universities, instead of competing with them. Many community and technical colleges supplement their degree programs with certifications and digital badges or embed industry certifications into their degree programs—why not yours?

Employers, such as Google, Amazon Web Services, Apple, and Facebook, are already partnering with colleges to include industry credentials in their curriculum. What’s going on in your industry or profession? Learn about the training needs of employers and work with them to design credentials that meet those needs.

Imagine this alternative future for your association—and your future members. Several years from now, because they’ve been seeing your marketing and accessing the resources on your website, high school graduates will have a better understanding of the jobs in your industry or profession. Instead of going to college, many of them will follow a learning pathway developed by your association, earn digital credentials and badges, and find a high-paying job with one of your member employers—instead of a barista job at the local coffee shop. You can make this dream a reality. 

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