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Certifications and micro-credentials are disrupting higher education

Published: September 2, 2021

Are industry certifications and micro-credentials quality alternatives to higher education degrees?

Do you think getting a college degree is the only way to get a high-paying job that will lead to a successful career? If so, you are not alone. Higher education has often been touted as the best option to prepare students for careers. 

However, with the ever-evolving fields of technology and cyber-security, college is not always the best option. Industry certifications and micro-credentialing are great alternatives to higher education. With these options, individuals can prove their knowledge and skills in areas that may not have existed when similar higher education curricula were developed. 

Another benefit to industry certifications and micro-credentialing is that they are often created with industry professionals, not just by educators as with higher education degrees. “One of the complaints about traditional higher education is that while universities teach critical thinking skills, they often leave graduates unprepared for the working world. To help combat that problem, Google partnered with other employers to vet the respective curriculums and to make sure they provided job-ready skills” when developing their career certificate programs. (Bariso, 2021)

What are micro-credentials?

Anisa Purbasari Horton (2020) notes that “while higher education and human resource experts all have slightly different interpretations of what they are, many agree that the concept has emerged in response to the skills gap caused by new technologies. Essentially, micro-credentials are bite-sized chunks of education, whether an online course, bootcamp certificate, or apprenticeship from a traditional university, specialty provider, or online learning platforms like Coursera, EdX, or Udacity.”

Jeff Salin (2019) suggests that “micro-credentials are representations of a person’s participation, progression, completion, or demonstration of a given competency.” Micro-credentials let individuals gain knowledge and skills for a specific area. This allows them to gradually increase their skill set at their own pace, which benefits both them and their current/future employers.

Additional benefits of micro-credentials for individuals are that they can take the micro-credentials with them anywhere, they can prove the skills they have and their ongoing professional development, and they might gain confidence and curiosity to seek new skills. Benefits for employers include understanding skills gaps and how to narrow them, improving employee engagement and productivity, and building a learning culture. To achieve all of these benefits micro-credentials must be transparent, meaningful, portable, and ever-evolving. (Salin, 2019)

Micro-credentials often are offered in the form of badges or certificates/certifications. Badges are often earned by completing online courses on a specific subject. Certificates or certifications are usually accredited and are offered by organizations with standardized credentials in a specific field. “Earning a certification proves that you have mastered a particular subject according to the regulations and curriculum laid out by that accredited organization.” (WGU Ohio, 2020)

Why are higher education institutions offering micro-credentials?

While many employers still require job candidates to have a college degree, some are seeing the benefits of micro-credentials. To keep from losing students to credentialing bodies who provide industry certifications, higher education institutions have added micro-credentials to provide smaller units than their two-year, four-year, graduate, and professional degrees. Shane Ralston (2020) notes that “in the higher education space, micro[-]credentialing has taken on a life of its own. Increasingly, college and university curricula have come to include short online, skill- and competency-based courses tailored to the industry and corporate clients.”

This allows higher education institutions to adapt to keep up with the growing trend of treating education as a commodity, as Ralston (2020) puts it “educational institutions adapt to competitive market pressures by behaving like profit-seeking firms. Not only do they conceive education as a commodity, but they also treat students and their employers as paying clients…As more businesses enter the higher education micro[-]credentialing marketplace, a so-called 'revolving door' has emerged between the online divisions of higher education institutions and third-party vendors.”

“Higher education is always evolving. As the workforce changes the credentials, knowledge, and experience it requires from candidates, colleges id adapting to give students the skills they need to succeed in the market. In today's educational landscape, students can follow several pathways to build their résumés.” (WGU Ohio, 2020) Micro-credentials are just one option.

How are micro-credential different than college degrees?

Regardless of who delivers micro-credentials, they include limited content usually in the form of modules and/or project-based learning for a specific skill or competency set. (Ralston, 2020) While micro-credentials can be staked into a larger credential, they do not provide the same depth and width of knowledge and skills included in a degree program. Even when offered by higher education intuitions many micro-credentials are not accredited the way college degrees are. Certifications offered by accrediting bodies are the only micro-credentials backed by accreditation. These often are found in skilled trade fields where the skills required do not change frequently. 

The accreditation process for new degrees and majors can take multiple years, depending on the accrediting body, accreditation standards, and the rigor of the accreditation process. Technology and cyber-security are industries that involve technological changes that make it impossible for higher education degrees and certifications to keep up. These are the markets in which micro-credentialing is essential and waiting for accrediting bodies is not possible. (Ralston, 2020) 

“Some micro-credentials, such as coding bootcamps, might have been developed to fill the gaps that universities can’t, and in turn might be perceived in relevant sectors as good alternatives to traditional degrees. But according to research that Gallagher and his colleagues conducted in 2018, that doesn’t mean university degrees don’t have significant value.” (Horton, 2020)

“If you've earned your degree or are already in the workforce, micro-credentials can increase your value. For instance, Forbes asserts that micro-credentials are especially important in education, as teachers use them to showcase areas of expertise to their administrations and to better measure and reward student success in the classroom…But micro-credentials aren't just useful in education…Micro-credentials can also be based on skills such as project management, communication, or problem-solving. Micro-credentials are particularly useful in fields that are constantly changing, such as IT… These programs help students quickly learn new skills and keep up with emerging technologies and initiatives.” (WGU Ohio, 2020)

How long does it take to earn a micro-credential and how long will it last?

“Micro-credentials are a relatively new development, and they allow learners to spend weeks or months focusing on a specific area of studies—such as cybersecurity, leadership, or medical coding—to show employers that they've mastered that skill. Whether it's earned through an online or an in-person course, a micro-credential is taken for credit and can stand alone as a credential or can contribute toward a degree. Micro-credentials help students master specialized subjects quickly and efficiently, boosting their résumés while learning new skills to jumpstart or advance their careers.” (WGU Ohio, 2020) Those who complete one of Google’s Career Certificate programs can do so within six months and for around $240. (Bariso, 2021)

Unlike a college degree, “micro[-]credentials must be renewed and updated to reflect changing technologies and related skills or competencies. Thus, they potentially represent never-ending revenue streams for colleges and universities. So, the business model for micro[-]credentialing is an architecture of planned obsolescence combined with the perpetual return of employers and workers to commodified eLearning[sic].” (Ralston, 2020)

Accredited certifications often have a specific time frame in which they must be renewed (e.g., two years, four years). This ensures that credential holders are skilled in any changes that may have taken place in the field since the issuing of the previous credential.

Where can an individual get a micro-credential?

As previously mentioned, higher education institutions now offer micro-credentials, but companies also offer them. In March 2021, Justin Bariso reported that Google launched a new certificate program which includes, 1) three new Google Career Certificates on Coursera in project management, data analytics, and user experience (UX) design; 2) a new Associate Android Developer Certification course; 3) over 100,000 need-based scholarships; 4) partnerships with more than 130 employers working with Google to hire those who graduate from a certificate program, and 5) a new Google Search feature to help job seekers find jobs for their education level whether or not they have a degree or experience. Google’s newest set of programs provide paths to high-demand jobs with high entry-level wages, are in fields in which Google has the expertise, and are taught in an online format.

“It’s worth noting that a number of micro-credential providers do design their courses in consultation with industry players. Udacity, for example, built its short online credential programs[sic] with the help of companies like Facebook, Google, AT&T, and Salesforce…In Canada, government-funded nonprofit eCampusOntario is currently working with universities and colleges to develop micro-credentials in collaboration with industry partners. According to the Northeastern report, many employers view industry validation of a micro-credential as a way of assessing its quality.” (Horton, 2020)

Sean Gallagher (Columnist) and Holly Zanville (2021) found that “as the acceptance of new types of credentials grows, a number of employers have become learning providers, in a way that could shake up the broader higher education landscape. A growing number of companies have moved beyond training their own employees or providing tuition assistance programs to send staff members to higher education. Many of these employers are also developing their own curricula and rapidly expanding their publicly-facing credential offerings…But the current boom in employer-issued credentials is different—and potentially transformational. Unlike the traditional IT certifications of decades past, these new credentials are less focused on proprietary technologies related to a given tech vendor and are instead more focused on broadly applicable tech skill sets such as IT support, cloud computing and digital marketing.”

“As you pursue higher learning and prepare for your career, a micro-credential might be exactly what you need to catch an employer's eye. Whether you take a short online course to learn about a particular subject for a résumé booster or you pursue certificates while earning a degree, micro-credentials can equip you with the expertise you need to excel.” (WGU Ohio, 2020)

Are there other ways to gain knowledge and skills for technology and cybersecurity careers?

WorkED’s programs provide students with knowledge, skills, firsthand experience, and insight into the world of technology and cybersecurity by exploring the fundamentals as well as real-world scenarios. Students will also interact with technology and cybersecurity industry professionals.

Not only do students benefit from WorkED’s programs, but so do teachers and future employers. WorkED provides industry with the opportunity to interact with students and even help design challenges that allow students to test their knowledge and skills. Educators benefit by receiving materials and support as well as having industry at the table to help advance their career-technical education pathways and engage students with workplace learning. Check out WorkED’s programs today!


Anisa Purbasari Horton, A. P. (2020, February 17). The Skills Gap Means Companies are Increasingly Considering Candidates from Non-traditional Paths: Could targeted, bite-sized chunks of education help you get a job? BBC.

Bariso, J. (2021, March 11).How Google's New Career Certificates Could Disrupt the College Degree (Exclusive): Get a first look at Google's new certificate programs and a new feature of Google Search designed to help job seekers everywhere. Inc.

Gallagher, S. & Zanville, H. (2021, March 25). More Employers Are Awarding Credentials: Is a parallel higher education system emerging? EdSurge. 

Ralston, S. J. (2020, May 20). Microcredentialing and the Future of Higher Ed: How will the growth of microcredentials transform higher education space? Medium.

Salin, J. (2019, November 25). Micro-credentials: A key tool for closing skill gaps. Training Industry.

WGU Ohio. (2020, April 10). Making Sense of Micro-credentials. Western Governors University.