Colleges and universities know a market opportunity when they see it. Right now, they’re salivating about digital badges and their potential to truly prepare students and recent graduates for the job market, build a new customer base, and bring in revenue.
Three new research reports confirm what many of us knew all along: digital badges bring benefits to both employers and learners. But, the research also revealed that confusion about digital badges is still an obstacle to their adoption and growth.
As industry leaders, associations can alleviate the concerns employers and learners have about digital badges more easily than your higher education competitors. But you must act quickly before colleges get their act together and take over the digital badge market.
Digital badge basics
Confusion is inevitable because digital badges are also called alternative credentials, microcredentials, and digital credentials. These competency-based credentials vouch for a person’s mastery of a skill and knowledge set. The badge itself is public proof of this achievement.
Unlike certificates stowed away in file cabinets or languishing on office walls, learners display digital badges in email signatures, on websites, on LinkedIn profiles, in resumes, or in digital badge backpacks like Credly. Embedded in the digital badge is metadata about the curriculum, issuing organization, timestamp, expiration, and links to supporting evidence of mastery.
Digital badge benefits for learners, employers, and associations
The annual global growth rate for digital badges is 19%, not surprising when you consider how learners, employers, and associations benefit from them.
Digital badge benefits for learners
When learners embark on a digital badge program, the end is in sight—unlike a longer course or certificate program. In a short amount of time, they can walk away with competencies to apply at work and a digital badge to display on their LinkedIn profile and resume.
Gen Z and millennials grew up receiving progress rewards. They didn’t have to wait until the end of the school year for recognition. Digital badges also reward progress after the completion of a module or program. Learners can earn digital badges as they progress through a certificate program that recognizes mastery as they go.
Learners can stack (combine) digital badges (or microcredentials) to demonstrate their mastery of a larger knowledge and skill set. They can advance from one microcredential to another along a learning pathway. This pathway could lead to a certificate or certification.
Digital badges are usually more affordable than other credentials offered by associations and higher education institutions.
Digital badge benefits for employers
Digital badge metadata makes achievements verifiable for employers. A new report from Collegis and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) sheds light on how digital badges and other non-degree credentials help employers verify talent.
• 76% of employers said these credentials show an employee's willingness to develop their skills.
• 63% said these credentials demonstrate initiative.
• 60% said they convey an employee’s competencies and skills.
• 80% said stackable credentials, like digital badges, increase their appeal.
Digital badge benefits for associations
Here’s the most important finding: 95% of employers see benefits in microcredentials. Why aren’t you providing that benefit to industry employers?
Digital badges can spark a learning habit and serve as a stepping-stone into more time-intensive learning programs. Offer badge programs for the competencies needed by all career levels. Design learning pathways around digital badges that lead to certificates or career milestones.
Achieving a digital badge seems less daunting than committing to a more comprehensive program. Learners can tackle one competency at a time, perhaps stirring up the same satisfying feeling they had when earning Girl or Boy Scout badges.
Employer concerns about digital badges
Per the UPCEA report, 69% of employers are “extremely familiar” or “very familiar” with nondegree credentials, but 65% want to see proof of their effectiveness. When a job applicant lists a nondegree credential on their resume, 46% of employers don’t know what to make of the program’s quality and 42% don’t know what skills and competencies the credential represents.
65% of the employers surveyed told UPCEA they’d like to collaborate with colleges on curriculum design of these credentials. Have they told associations that too? We’ll return to that point soon.
Learner concerns about digital badges
The number of educational credentials has tripled since 2018, with now more than one million in the U.S. alone. No wonder learners and employers are confused. 40% of students say the biggest barrier to professional or technical skill development is not knowing where to start. 60% worry that digital credentials may be too costly to obtain.
How your association can dominate the digital badge market
If you address the concerns of employers and prospective learners, your digital badge program will flourish. But don’t forget your biggest market advantage: your existing relationship with industry employers.
Involve employers. Two-thirds of employers in the UPCEA survey said they were willing to collaborate with colleges on the curriculum design of nondegree credentials. 53% of them said employer engagement is a necessity. Why aren’t associations asking for and receiving that cooperation? Start by creating an employer advisory board who helps you design and promote digital badge programs.
Explain what badges represent. In the digital badge metadata and on the linked web page, provide a comprehensive description of the skills and competencies acquired by the digital badge holder.
Assuage concern about digital badge effectiveness. Gather testimonials from badge holders and their employers about the impact of digital badge programs on their job performance and career.
Spread awareness about your digital badges. Try different tactics to promote badges to younger generations.
• Attract the attention of students, recent graduates, and early-career professionals with downloadable content that helps them find jobs or navigate their career. Collect email addresses when they download these lead magnets.
• Ask members to speak at local educational and vocational institutions about your association’s digital badge and early-career programs.
• Ask digital badge fans to provide reviews on sites like Reddit, Yelp, and Indeed.com.
• Advertise digital badge programs on social media platforms, like TikTok, Instagram, and Reddit.
• Start a student and early-career community on Discord.
Show learners where to start. Display learning pathways on your website for different career goals that include programs awarding digital badges. Since students and recent graduates have limited understanding of your industry or profession, provide basic information on webpages targeted at that audience.
Offer career advice and coaching. Kyle Albert, assistant research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, said, “Let’s be honest: the state of career advising for young people in the U.S. schools is not great, and once you’re out of high school, it’s quite abysmal,” said. Train volunteers to serve as career coaches for young members or subscribers.
Address the affordability issue. Learners worry about the cost of credentials. If your programs are affordable, brag about it. Request $5 scholarship donations on registration forms. Invite sponsors to subsidize programs. Corporate partners have lots of expertise to share, especially about soft skills.
Why your association should explore digital badges sooner rather than later
I can’t tell you the number of articles I’ve read in the higher education press about the urgent need for colleges and universities to offer digital badge programs that prepare students, alumni, and customers for work. But this is where they struggle and you excel.
Many colleges and universities are bound by a degree mindset and not used to thinking outside those parameters. They’re weighed down by administrators. With rare exceptions, they’re not used to working with employers. They don’t speak your industry’s language.
Higher ed is not part of the industry like your association is—that’s your chief advantage. They’re outside your industry. Don’t let them come into your industry and steal your learners.