The Traditional Academic Degree is Under Pressure

Understanding the challenges of turning stackable certificates into degrees. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Omer Riaz


Traditional academic degrees are under pressure. Instead of committing to a four-year program, many of today’s students are seeking alternative learning paths, such as accumulating skills-based certificates. Certificate-based courses are often delivered in hybrid, asynchronous modes that meet the needs of working adults. Learners can acquire as many disparate certificates as they want, on their own time. With these certificates in hand, individuals can validate their skills to potential employers, opening opportunities to get lucrative jobs without exhausting the time or expenses associated with the four-year degree. It sounds ideal. What’s the catch?

The catch is that a lot of well-paying jobs still prefer or even require a traditional degree. Simply put, students with degrees generally make more money than students who do not hold a diploma, regardless of the number of certificates a student acquires.

Yet despite this fact, the demand for certificates remains on the rise due to several critical factors. First, the increasing costs associated with obtaining a four-year degree are putting the traditional college dream out of reach for many people. Certificates are growing in popularity among learners largely because they are reasonably easy and inexpensive to acquire. The second is that employers may be shifting their focus and putting more of an emphasis on hard skills over soft ones, with tech leading the way in hiring employees with certificates. Even when degree requirement aren’t completely waived, many job-seekers need skills-based certificates alongside their degrees to get entry-level jobs.

‘…increasing costs associated with obtaining a four-year degree are putting the traditional college dream out of reach for many people. Certificates are growing in popularity…’ 

The perfect storm of these events has given rise to an emerging concept: Why not make it so learners can combine a portfolio of certificates into something akin to a traditional degree?

The Accreditation Barrier 

The tide may appear to be turning, but there are still several challenges preventing stackable credentials from becoming the new norm. Namely, accreditation. Currently, there are no standardized rules and regulations for what defines a certain certificate. One college for example may offer a cybersecurity certificate comprised of four courses, while a peer institution offers a comparable certificate built off six different courses.

In addition to having no clear delineation between certificates, there is no standardization for which certificates could be stacked to accommodate a “degree.” Without these shared definitions and standards, there is no clear way to determine if one candidate with a portfolio of certificates from one institution has more relevant skills for a job over another candidate from a different college or university.

The Ego Barrier

While students may want a different way of obtaining a diploma, many universities have not felt that pain point yet. Enrollment issues are on the rise, but they have not yet hit a tipping point where institutions need to totally rethink their degree delivery model—or so they think. Experts and experienced staff alike want to be optimistic about the enrollment crisis by setting the expectation that the drop-off may not be terminal. This remains to be seen.

Likewise, some schools are worried about their brands and reputations if they were to offer alternative learning paths. To many, getting a degree from an ivy league institution, for example, conveys a certain significance. Providing students with stackable credentials could change how the schools are perceived—internally as well as externally.

The Technology Barrier

Beyond the accreditation, institutional, and mindset hurdles, technology also seems to be a factor in preventing stackable credentials from becoming a reality. Stackable credentials need to be digital and transferable. To make the information transferable, the digital file format needs to be standardized. All the associated metadata needs to travel with the student’s digital transcript. That standardization, interoperability, and formatting will require a consortium of institutions to find agreement. 

Because these credentials need to be digital, fraud and security are also significant hurdles facing institutions. There needs to be a way to ensure that learners are who they say they are and that their credentials are valid. Many institutions are not yet comfortable with technologies that promise to secure their digital credentials, which is limiting buy-in and investment in the stackable degree arena.

For Institutions, Are Stackable Certificates a Worthwhile Pursuit?

College presidents may not be financially ready to lose the revenue of having a student on campus for four years. Offering flexible learning journeys through stackable degree programs could mean losing out the costs accumulated by having students live and eat on campus.

But this revenue loss assumes that the stackable credential route is right for everyone. It’s not. Stackable credentials are ideal for working adults or learners who know what career they want and what skills they need to obtain. But not many high school seniors know what they wish to do with their lives. For these students, four-year institutions may remain the best educational option.

Instead of replacing on-campus student revenue, stackable credentials could supplement an institution’s traditional degree program. Institutions could expand their student pool and draw more non-traditional learners to apply and enroll in courses. For institutions feeling the impact of the decades-long enrollment decline, implementing these programs may very well be worth the work.

Can Higher Education Afford to Stagnate?

Looking at other industries, it’s clear that evolution is a requirement to survival. Netflix successfully made the digital jump, shedding its mail-in service for its now ubiquitous, fully online streaming business model. Blockbuster, on the other hand, did not make the leap, as it was unable to wean itself off the gross profit margins that its previously dominant physical assets provided.

Institutions can view this story as a cautionary tale. Some colleges won’t confront the barriers that keep them from making the transformation required to compete in tomorrow’s higher education ecosystem. Others will evolve to keep pace with learner expectations.

As we move to an increasingly digital age, students will expect the college experience to prepare them for the modern work experience. Many will look for institutions that provide the certificates they can use that will display their full set of skills to potential employers. There are certainly challenges to implementing stackable degree programs, but these challenges are by no means insurmountable if institutions are willing to put in the work.

Omer Riaz is VP of Corporate Strategy at Jenzabar, a leading higher education software and services provider. Connect with Omer on LinkedIn


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