The Power of Microcredentials and America’s Higher Education Dilemma

column | Affordability

The Power of Microcredentials and America’s Higher Education Dilemma

By Mordecai I. Brownlee (Columnist)     Mar 23, 2023

The Power of Microcredentials and America’s Higher Education Dilemma

This semester, the Community College of Aurora rolled out the first microcredentials in its history. These short courses offer students the opportunity to study behavioral health, which aligns with jobs in our region related to human services, sociology, counseling, psychology and social work.

Community colleges, which have historically served as comprehensive institutions offering associate degrees with transfer articulation agreements to four-year colleges, have also served as workforce drivers through their array of educational credit and non-credit courses. However, as industry and technology have evolved rapidly, inadequate higher education funding and rising costs due to inflation have affected higher education’s responsiveness.

In order to understand the significance of microcredentials, their ability to help meet workforce demands, and the dilemma these short-term credentials are causing to traditional higher education, we must first walk through the ways college has evolved during its nearly 400 years of history in our nation.

Origins of Higher Education in America

From the establishment of Harvard University, America’s first university, in 1636, higher education in America was designed with an original purpose that differs greatly from the realities of today. Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, nine institutions of higher learning known as the Colonial Colleges were established. Most were designed to educate clergy, according to research by Phillip R. Shriver.

Fast forward to 1862, the Morrill Land Grant College Act set aside federal lands to create colleges to benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts. In honor of Native Americans, it is important to note that by signing the act, more than 10 million acres were expropriated from the tribal lands of Native communities and assigned for the development of land-grant institutions. According to historian Benjamin T. Arrington, in 1860 the economic value of enslaved peoples in the U.S. exceeded the invested value of all of the nation's railroads, factories and banks combined. Interestingly, on the eve of the Civil War, cotton prices were at an all-time high. While the Civil War wouldn’t end for several years, strategically, the Morrill Act positioned the U.S. to transition away from human slavery as its dependent workforce for crop production and infrastructure development.

From 1890 to 1940, higher education in the U.S. experienced what Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz describe as the “formative years.” As their research describes, “technological shocks” that swept the “knowledge industry” widened the scale of concentration, public funding and support for higher education’s increased scope of service to society.

The Expansion of America’s Higher Education System

During this same period of time, a new class of wealthy industrialists and a prosperous middle class was birthed as a result of industrialization and a population boom. According to the National Library of Medicine, at the beginning of the 19th century, the world’s population exceeded 1 billion people for the first time. By 1920, the world had surpassed 2 billion people.

In the U.S. alone, the population grew from more than 92 million in 1910 to more than 226 million in 1980. After World War II and the Vietnam War, America’s residents had grown by more than 145 percent. The country grew from having more than 500 institutions of higher education during the 1869-1870 school year to more than 3,000 by the end of the 1980s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With such industrial, technological, infrastructural, societal and economic growth occurring in the country, higher education became seen as a key pathway to success.

America’s Workforce Dilemma

During the 2019-2020 academic year, U.S. postsecondary institutions conferred about 5.1 million awards, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Ranging from certificates below the associate degree level to doctorate degrees, these credentials were conferred by public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit institutions.

Clearly, the country’s higher education system has come a long way. However, as we envision the future of higher education, there are numerous factors converging on society that will forever affect the sector, as well as Americans’ trust that college has a positive effect on the country.

The U.S. economy regained the 25 million jobs it lost in the pandemic. But in dozens of states, employment still lags pre-pandemic levels. Why? Well, the American workforce is shrinking. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2022 nearly 3 million fewer Americans were participating in the labor force compared to February of 2020.

To further complicate matters, the U.S. birth rate has been declining since the 1970s. Despite the U.S. economy reporting the addition of 4.8 million jobs in 2022, there simply aren’t enough people in the job market to fill these roles. And as of 2021, more than half of the U.S. population aged 25 or older had not completed a bachelor’s degree. This means not only does America lack an available workforce, it lacks a prepared workforce.

Here is where microcredentials serve as a powerful and timely solution.

The Power of Microcredentials

Microcredentials are incremental qualifications that demonstrate skills, knowledge or experience in a specific subject area or capability, as defined in a Forbes article. These innovative awards can offer an alternative to traditional credentialing like certificates, diplomas and grades by recognizing discrete skill development via digital icons called badges, according to an article published by the journal TechTrends.

With such a large share of the current and emerging American workforce lacking a credential, and growing industry needs for workers, recently the Colorado Community College System and my institution, the Community College of Aurora, partnered with Educational Design Lab to develop five behavioral health microcredential pathways. Designed in direct partnership with local industry partners, like Aurora Mental Health & Recovery, these microcredentials serve as a critical instrument to increasing workforce preparedness in our region.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about a third of the need for mental health professionals in Colorado is currently met, driving demand for additional qualified behavioral health workers. By offering microcredential pathways in patient navigation, peer support specialist, behavioral health associate, and behavioral health+, these new credentials are designed to address Colorado’s mental health workforce shortage by preparing people for these roles in less than one year.

They are also designed to be affordable. With microcredentials ranging in length from three to 18 credit hours, resident tuition ranges from $600 to $3,000, with financial assistance available. Compared to the cost of average tuition and fees at public four-year universities, which comes out to $9,400, these microcredentials create more affordable academic options that lead to economic mobility and high returns on investment for students.

In describing her collaboration with my institution, Kelly Phillips-Henry, CEO of Aurora Mental Health & Recovery, shared, “Our relationship with Community College of Aurora exemplifies the best in finding workforce solutions. Together we dug into the details to develop curriculum and training experiences that prepare students to meet the requirements for specific job responsibilities in behavioral health.”

On the institution side, Jennifer E. Dale, dean of Online and Blended Learning at the college, expressed, “Our industry relationships were critical in the development of these microcredentials. Once drafted, we returned to our industry partners to review and revise that curriculum to ensure our students would learn the key competencies needed in their entry-level positions, as well as set students up for success as they continue their educational pursuits.”

Considerations and Complex Realities

When building these innovative pathways, it is imperative for institutions of higher education to work in direct partnership with the industry partner prior to and during the development of the microcredentials. Such collaboration will ensure a seamless pathway for students seeking to obtain the critical skills and knowledge necessary to obtain their desired job. Furthermore, such collaboration will promote instructional alignment with the knowledge, skills and abilities that industries need from their workers.

Herein lies the dilemma. By nature of the credential’s design, students are encouraged to pursue these short-term credentials as an alternative to the traditional academic pathway. Critically speaking, the speed of these programs will not proficiently train students on soft (or essential) skills such as teamwork, interpersonal relations, complex thinking, or emotional intelligence. Furthermore, whether built as credit-bearing or non-credit pathways, microcredentials are by no means a substitute for the intensiveness or comprehensiveness of traditional higher education pathways.

However, systematic credentialing redesign is a necessary step toward America addressing its own workforce shortage. As described by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, if every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 4 million open jobs. With such a high level of imbalance, all solutions should be welcomed.

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