Why Your Association Should Get into the Microcredentials Business

Given the demands any project puts on an association’s limited resources, there better be compelling arguments for pursuing a new line of business. When you review the reasons below, I think you’ll see the time is right to consider offering microcredentials to existing and future industry professionals.

Reasons to offer microcredentials

The demand for microcredentials is growing, and the competition is too, but associations have an advantage. 

Growing market demand from learners and employers

Recent research illustrates how students and employers feel about microcredential programs. Students find value in these programs because they’re more affordable and take less time to complete than degree programs. 

“Gen Z and millennials are used to taking smaller, bite-size pieces,” said James Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). “They were given rewards at earlier stages and milestones… [we’ve] got to reward people for accomplishments along the way.”

Microcredential programs focus on teaching practical skills and knowledge that learners can apply right away—unlike most liberal arts degrees. In these programs of limited duration, the end is always in sight. Learners feel a motivating sense of progress as they proceed through the program and earn digital badges along the way. 

Fiona Hollands, founder and managing director of EdResearcher, the company behind another recent study, said employers are no longer confident that four-year college degrees prepare students for the workforce

“Grade inflation and efforts to help everyone graduate from high school and attend college make it harder for employers to differentiate among applicants or trust traditional credentials. People who earn microcredentials demonstrate initiative, motivation, and a willingness to go above and beyond by investing in developing their own skills and knowledge.”

Microcredentials offer employers proof of competency. When assessing the skills of prospective and existing employees, employers appreciate the obvious results gained from microcredential programs. It also doesn’t hurt that microcredential programs are easier on an employer’s budget than tuition.

Increasing urgency because of competitors with abundant resources

Colleges, with their lavish budgets, are entering the microcredential market to improve their relevance and bottom line.

In a HolonIQ survey released earlier this year, 88% of higher education institutions agreed or strongly agreed that their organization sees alternative credential and microcredential programs as an important strategy for their future. They believe industry credentials are already a credible alternative to degree programs or will become one in the near future. 

The good news: only 13% of higher ed institutions describe their adoption of microcredential programs as “mature,” although that’s double the percentage from two years ago. However, they’re coming on strong: nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities describe their microcredential programs as “emerging.”

Colleges face a bureaucratic challenge. If their accreditation body doesn’t accept microcredentials as part of an undergraduate or graduate degree program, researchers believe they won’t risk their accreditation by adopting them.

Because it takes a long time for colleges to gain necessary approvals and accreditation and to design microcredential programs, researchers believe these programs won’t be able to keep up with technological advances.

Certainly, some associations have their own bureaucratic nightmare: slow-moving decision-making. But associations have a significant advantage over colleges in the microcredential market: existing name recognition and relationships with industry employers. Because association leaders are on the industry front lines, they see technological advances coming and can respond nimbly with relevant programs.

microcredentials seem like a better option for this young person

Possible tax break for learners

Right now, colleges have an unfair advantage over associations. Learners can use tax-exempt 529 savings plans to pay for college credentialing programs, but not for association programs. But that could soon change. 

The bipartisan, bicameral Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act would expand qualified expenses under 529 savings plans to include postsecondary training and credentialing offered by associations. Your association can support this Act by joining (for free) the Tomorrow’s Workforce Coalition.

Microcredential challenges for associations 

Microcredentials are still confusing for some employers and learners. Many aren’t sure what microcredentials represent and how they can assess a program’s quality. Prospective learners have trouble finding the right programs. 

You can resolve these issues by educating the market—both employers and prospective learners. HolonIQ suggests another solution. “Cross industry standards must be established and blockchain credentialing verification services adopted.”

As industry leaders, associations must be out front and at the table when these standards are established. Learn about blockchain, if you haven’t already. It’s not just about cryptocurrency.

Employer HR systems do a poor job of recognizing microcredentials. Industry employers and associations could work together to solve this issue. 

Associations, especially those serving industries with labor shortages, should consider developing microcredential programs with the help of an employer advisory council or workforce development council. 

The UPCEA survey found that employers are willing to collaborate with companies and higher ed institutions offering microcredentials to ensure that the training fits workforce needs. More than two-thirds of employers want to be approached by a college to collaborate on microcredential programs—a threefold increase since 2018. 

“Employers want to be on advisory committees,” Fong at UPCEA said. “They want to be able to say what skills are important.” 

Why should colleges, which are distant from your industry, be the ones to work with employers? If your association isn’t offering microcredentials, survey and talk with employers to find out what type of competencies their employees need and what kind of microcredential programs they would support.

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