Why all the buzz about alternative credentials in higher education?

Male professor sitting on table while lecturing to a classroom of students

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you are already aware of and interested in alternative credentials in higher education. In reality the changing face of higher education in the US and around the world has dictated that forward-thinking institutions consider a range of unbundling strategies including non-degree, post-degree, specialty skills, and certificate  programs. Today these nontraditional programs have become part of survival and growth strategies for many of the best, most responsive colleges and universities.

Alternative credential programs better meet the needs of today’s post secondary student populations, who are increasingly working adults with diverse interests, needs and limited time for learning.  The other audiences and stakeholders served by colleges and universities are often circumspect of the value of higher education and demand at least some attention to ROI for higher education funding. Employers continue to identify skill gaps with respect to college graduates, and the pace of change in business and technology has never been faster, yet traditional college curricula change slowly, if at all.

Alternative credentials — particularly in digital formats like Open Badges — are rapidly becoming an important way for institutions to connect education to jobs and further learning,  and to ensure that learners get credit for what they know and what they can do. Programs that confer alternative credentials can also provide new ways for institutions to interact with and serve employers and the general public by providing evidence of the impact of their programs and adapting more rapidly than the traditional curriculum development and accreditation processes require.

Two Examples

  • Under the “Doing What Matters” program, California Community Colleges have created a skills framework and pathway called Business Information Worker that develops entry level skills to help learners get the job. The BIW program provides affordable access to an industry-validated, common framework of skills that will be credentialized as a digital badge system. The BIW pathway emphasizes employer-defined outcomes, ensuring each learner has a solid foundation in Microsoft Windows and Office as well as strong digital literacy and basic business communication skills. It was designed and validated with input from more than 400 businesses and employment agencies in California. Because it focuses on outcomes and competencies, each college can align its own curriculum and define its own pathways to mastery, including direct assessment via third party credentials as well as course-based learning options in credit and non-credit formats.
  • Capella University in Minneapolis is one of the first four-year online universities to offer digital badges through Acclaim. Designated by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense, Capella offers NSA Focus Area digital badges to students completing its master’s in information assurance and security, network defense and digital forensic specializations. Capella is also now moving forward with plans to accept Cybersecurity professional certification badges as credit for prior learning, including tuition credits toward Master’s degree programs.

Where to begin?

  1. Just use badges and don’t worry about the term “badge.” We use “alternative credentials” and “digital badges”  interchangeably – the badge is just the vehicle to carry your credential details out to the world. In the same way that you would not plan a marketing campaign or a customer engagement plan today without thinking about using the web, social networks or mobile phones, shackling your learning credential programs to paper formats is unnecessarily limiting. Open digital credentials that learners control provide transparency, verification and context that extends, expands and increases the utility of your learning credentials – so why not start by thinking of these two ideas together?
  2. Listen and understand the discussion from both sides. Develop your program outcomes with badge consumers in mind, focus on what is changing in the learning and employment marketplace, and listen to the voices of your “consumers,” including the businesses in your community and the audiences you serve. The common data format that badges require can help to minimize miscommunication. If your program designers and employers must agree on the specific outcomes and skills they want to hire, the badge metadata will help ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  3. Cultivate frequent stakeholder interactions to ensure alignment. Do your alternative credentials communicate the right skills at the right level to be useful to outside audiences? Do your learners want to be recognized for “micro-skills” or for larger skillsets and competencies? Do employers accept the “macro” level of your degree-level credentials, or do they want more granularity and visibility into specific competencies and skills? How do your learning outcomes align to existing third party professional standards and certifications? Engage your advisory groups early and often to ensure synchronization and alignment for your alternative credential programs. Remember, badge programs can easily evolve and adapt and you can always update and revise the parts that aren’t working.


Read the unique approaches Santa Barbara City College and IBM are using with alternative credentials.


About the Author
Peter Janzow

Peter Janzow

Peter Janzow is a Business Development Manager in support of Acclaim, an enterprise class badging platform backed by Pearson. Peter has actively contributed to education for many years in roles that include executive management, global market development and entrepreneurship for educational publishing and technology companies.

With a  keen interest in STEM education, Peter continues to work actively in the fields of workforce development, professional credentialing, and engineering education. He is a former Director of the American Society for Engineering Education and has been with Pearson for a total of 18 years over the span of his career.