How Microcredentials Are Transforming Higher Education

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Wednesday, October 25, 2023
By Coursera
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
How can universities meet the rapidly changing needs of employers? By offering industry microcredentials that equip students with job-ready skills.

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  • Both students and employers are placing greater value on industry microcredentials as a way to keep up with the most sought-after skills in an ever-evolving job market.
  • Universities have flexibility in how they integrate this training into their curricula—they can offer microcredentials as noncredit, for-credit, or free co-curricular options.
  • One solution is Coursera’s Career Academy, where students can learn job-specific skills by completing microcredentials offered by the world’s leading companies.

In a competitive and evolving labor market, employers increasingly expect entry-level talent to join the workforce already equipped with job-relevant skills and hands-on experience. At the same time, prospective students are more carefully considering potential job outcomes before they decide to enroll in traditional three- and four-year college degree programs. 

As a result, higher education institutions are enhancing their curricula to ensure they are teaching the skills that are in greatest demand. With the rise of tools such as ChatGPT, employers particularly want to hire candidates who understand and are adept at using artificial intelligence platforms, according to a recent McKinsey report. Employers also are seeking candidates who possess highly sought-after skills in areas such as cybersecurity, project management, digital marketing, and data visualization. 

To align their curricula with the most desired job skills, universities and colleges around the world are offering microcredentials that target particular industries as part of their degree programs. As defined by UNESCO, a microcredential focuses on a specific set of learning outcomes within a narrow field of knowledge, and it can be earned over a short period of time. Microcredentials are offered by commercial entities, professional bodies, institutions of higher education, and private providers. 

Why Industry Microcredentials Matter 

To better understand the value students and employers place on microcredentials, online learning provider Coursera partnered with two market research firms—Dynata and Repdata—to survey nearly 5,000 students and employers in 11 countries. The survey findings confirm that students and recent graduates believe that earning industry microcredentials will increase their employability.

Ninety-three percent of higher education leaders surveyed agree that offering nondegree credentials can help their schools combat declining enrollment numbers and open up new and diverse revenue streams.

Among students surveyed, 90 percent agree or strongly agree that earning entry-level professional certificates will help them stand out to employers and secure jobs when they graduate. On average, 76 percent of students globally (and 74 percent in the U.S.) are more likely to enroll in degree programs that offer industry microcredentials.

University decision-makers also recognize the benefits of microcredentials for their institutions. Ninety-three percent of higher education leaders surveyed agree that offering nondegree credentials, including microcredentials, can help their schools combat declining enrollment numbers and open up new and diverse revenue streams.

How to Implement Industry Microcredentials  

In our recent playbook, we dive into how higher education institutions worldwide are implementing industry microcredentials in different ways to drive different career outcomes for students. Schools have flexibility in how they choose to implement these options in their programs. For example, they can offer microcredentials as noncredit options, or they can integrate these credentials into the curriculum for credit.

Another way universities can deliver microcredentials is via Career Academy, a solution created by Coursera. Career Academy offers Professional Certificates, industry microcredentials that enable students to discover in-demand careers and learn job-specific skills. Students who pursue these certificates receive training from the world’s leading companies—such as Google, Meta, Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce, and IBM—for an ever-expanding range of roles in software and IT, data science, project management, and business.

The approach adopted by the University of Texas System, which spans nine academic campuses serving roughly 240,000 students, offers a prime example of how institutions are using microcredentials to complement traditional offerings with in-demand digital skills from leading industry brands. In August 2023, the system partnered with Coursera to place greater emphasis on microcredentials throughout its curriculum.

Career Academy offers Professional Certificates, industry microcredentials that enable students to discover in-demand careers and learn job-specific skills.

The system is now offering 35 microcredentials, primarily related to technology fields. Kelvin Bentley, program manager for the initiative, hopes to have 30,000 students go through the program by 2025, whether they complete one course or earn an entire microcredential. 

The University of Arizona is another institution that is implementing industry microcredentials through Career Academy. The university offers more than 30 Professional Certificates as free, self-paced, co-curricular opportunities that are part of its career-readiness efforts. To earn a certificate, in topics that range from social media marketing from Meta to data science from IBM, students take five to 10 courses that can require 50 to 100 hours to complete.

So far, the university’s Student Engagement & Career Development office has found early success promoting Professional Certificates to equity-deserving students, as well as to seniors and recent graduates still seeking employment. Faculty also have access, which has helped recruit internal champions for the program. 

Hawai’i Pacific University (HPU) is leveraging Professional Certificates in its undergraduate business curriculum and MBA program as for-credit graduate requirements. The school presents the certificates to students as opportunities to explore different career paths while learning real-world skills. Faculty also have embraced the ability to earn microcredentials, with 60 percent completing a Professional Certificate in their disciplines.

“Students want to know that their learning is linked to a career pathway,” says Mark Rosenbaum, dean of HPU’s College of Business. “They want to acquire skills that prepare them for work immediately, and employers want the same thing. We’re seeing less of an emphasis on majors and more on proficiency, especially in STEM fields where things change so fast.”

A Win-Win Solution

Due to the growing demand for microcredentials, Coursera is continually adding Professional Certificates in new industries and domains to its portfolio.

With demand for digital skills at an all-time high, industry microcredentials offer a win-win solution for both students and higher education institutions. They prepare students for the real-world challenges they will face in the job market, while enhancing the value of traditional degree programs. 

For any university decision-makers who are looking to advance their institutions and drive outcomes for students, now is the time to consider implementing Career Academy. To learn more about how to bring industry microcredentials into an institution, download our “Professional Certificate Playbook.”

By linking skills-based learning to skills-based hiring, higher education institutions can fill gaps in their curricula and build bridges between their degree programs and the demands of today’s employers. At the same time, microcredential offerings not only will help employers diversify their hiring pipelines, but also assure them that their new hires are job-ready.

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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