Pivoting the Degree
to Accommodate the Rise of Micro-Credentials

Pivoting the Degree
to Accommodate the Rise of Micro-Credentials

The college diploma has long served as an unofficial gate between student life and the “real world.” For more than a generation, earning a college diploma has signaled the end of learning and the beginning of work. It’s even permeated how we talk to recent and expectant college graduates.

Dr. Andrew Temte

President, Kaplan Professional

Andrew Temte, PhD, CFA, is president of Kaplan Professional Education (KPE), a division of Kaplan, Inc. As president of KPE, Dr. Temte oversees and leverages assets, capabilities, and talent across Kaplan’s global footprint.

You’ve likely said or heard some variation of the following question:

“So now that you’ve finished your education, what’s next?”

We’ve been conditioned by our mentors and teachers that we can somehow be “done” with our education. It’s essential that this conversation change, and we begin to retrain our minds to accept that lifelong learning and continuous upskilling throughout our lives is the new normal. The reason this is so important is that the way we work today is drastically different than the way we worked just five or ten years ago and this rate of change will only accelerate. 

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The rise of technologies, such as machine learning and robotic process automation, will require that we continually learn and adopt new skills and abilities to keep pace. Most job categories will require the incumbent to utilize higher-order thinking in the future, since machines will be doing the tactical and repetitive jobs that many of us are doing today. We must become accustomed to rapidly reskilling and adding new tools to the portfolio of competencies we bring to the job market. As mentors, we have to help make the concept of lifelong learning desirable in the minds of future contributors and leaders. Lifelong learning has to become the expectation and not the exception.

The Professional Education Model of the Future

As I’ve mentioned, technology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace. It’s not only changing the way we do our jobs, it’s disrupting complete job categories and rendering some of them obsolete. This rapid advancement in technology is also creating entirely new job categories. There will be jobs that exist in the next decade that we haven’t even thought of today. These changes will only increase the size of the skills gap, even in industries that haven’t yet been severely affected by it.

Today, a college degree still plays a critical role in the preparation of an individual for the workforce. It remains a valuable signal of the ability of an individual to learn and grow in their lives. But instead of being viewed as the pinnacle of learning it is today, a college degree will become the foundation upon which an individual’s professional career is built. I posit that the college degree needs to change into a credential that signals to employers that the degree holder is a well-rounded citizen with a demonstrated willingness and ability to embark on a life of continuous improvement—that he or she is ready to begin stacking behavioral and technical micro-credentials that are necessary for workplace success.

The process of earning a degree shouldn’t take four years. Instead, these foundational diploma programs should be engineered to take two years at most. They also need to be focused much more heavily on the behavioral skills that are necessary for success in the workplace—teaming, critical thinking, communication, empathy—all the skills that are required to build EQ (emotional quotient). Micro-credentials can then be pursued by the learner based on initial career intent. The number, intensity, and duration of these micro-credentials would differ by career with specific learner journeys designed jointly between educational institutions and corporate decision-makers.  

The point being that a prospective employee would enter the workforce with the foundational degree that signals motivation, desire, tenacity, and other baseline employability characteristics plus a stack of behavioral and technical micro-credentials that are specific to the initial career path chosen. In this way, the distance between initial career choice and the first day on the job is much shorter, and there would be a higher probability that the stack of micro-credentials is relevant and applicable to the work being performed. This is in contrast to the environment today, where a student graduates with a monolithic degree that does not map directly to the work to be performed, and learned competencies are stale or outdated due to the lag between the development of educational programming and rapid changes in workplace competencies. We must build a greater degree of flexibility into learner journeys, which will allow employees to switch career paths more readily as job classes get disrupted. When Suzie or Billy need to reskill, it shouldn’t mean heading back to college for another two- to four-year stint.

In this future state, where a foundational diploma is coupled with micro-credentials to create specific learner journeys, employers will need to be even more diligent in their efforts to keep job descriptions up to date and aligned with the competencies that are necessary for specific job role personas. This is critical because in order to minimize the skills gap of the future, competencies by job role persona will have to be adjusted in real time, and clear signals will need to be sent to employees about new micro-credentials to pursue to keep their skill toolkit current.

The Challenge to Employers 

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Without drastic change in the way we train and prepare employees to do the work critical to the success of our businesses, the skills gap we are all witnessing will not narrow. In fact, it will grow, and it will do so at a rate that parallels growth in technological advancement.  

Our educational system will make improvements to try to keep up with the world of work, but the system is historically slow to react and is already behind. I have faith that over time, our institutions of higher learning will adapt to the new realities described above, but this is a long-term vision. True competency-based models are a compelling solution, but most competency programs that are in place today are simple derivatives of legacy credit hour offerings to stay in line with accreditation and US Department of Education funding rules.

In the near term, the corporate learning and development function will need to pick up the slack. Defining job role personas, mapping learner journeys specific to those roles, and pledging to invest the necessary resources to keep that information current is a good first step. Micro-credentials that support those journeys can then be defined in conjunction with educators and professional education providers to allow current and prospective employees to stay relevant and productive in their roles, while maintaining the appropriate level of flexibility as their job role persona changes. Organizations who embrace this challenge early will be setting themselves up for significant opportunity going forward.  


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