I’ll confess, when I first heard about digital badges in the early 2000s, I thought they were kind of silly. I was just starting my career as an instructional systems designer (ISD)—the original title for learning designers. While I had fond memories of my Girl Scout sash, peppered with badges, I didn’t understand why anyone would care about a virtual version of these emblems of achievement.
When I came of age in the mid-1980s, my working-class parents taught me that a four-year degree from a high-ranking university was the ticket to securing a good job. But that was well before the colossal student loan crisis. Today economists continually crunch the numbers on whether the high cost of a college education really pays off.
Despite high tuitions, most experts still agree that a college degree translates into higher earning power over the course of a lifetime. Jennifer Ma, a senior policy research scientist at the College Board, argues that “a higher education is an investment that pays significant dividends over the course of a lifetime—even for students who accumulate some debt to obtain a degree” (College Board, 2020). CNN Business reports that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York saw college graduates gaining an average of 14 percent return on investment from their college degrees (Bahney, 2019). Nevertheless, students are becoming less willing to mortgage their futures with big loans in the hope that they will be able to repay them and live prosperously. More and more students and the businesses that employ them are instead seeking alternatives to the long, traditional road to success. Short-term offerings in the form of micro-credentials, digital badges, and nano-degrees—or alternative digital credentials (ADCs)—are sprouting up to provide a different path to opportunity and economic advancement. ADCs promise a shorter pipeline between education and employment.
But will that promise be met?
Two reports highlight the growing role ADCs will play in strengthening that school-to-work pipeline. In a September 2018 report, Inside Higher Ed reassured its readers that “the college degree remains the best ticket to a rewarding career and the middle class.” The study, however, went on to say that “alternative forms of learning will quickly create a new ecosystem of skill and knowledge acquisition and evaluation for the marketplace.” The January 2019 report from the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) spoke with greater urgency, arguing that its member institutions “will experience a slow decline in relevance and market position if they fail to adopt ADCs and remain unsympathetic to student employability concerns” (ICDE Working Group, 2019, p. 8).
These studies need not be the death knell of traditional university education, but they are a call to action for universities to respond to the very real need and market demand for a shortened, more relevant educational experience.
Right now, businesses are pairing up directly with students and cutting out the “middleman” of college. We see tech companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook offering boot camps that provide training in specific, job-related skills and internships that lead to jobs. These shortcuts to employment are particularly compelling to students anxious to avoid student debt and enter the workforce sooner. This trend might provide multiple pathways to upward mobility for low-income students.
But critics argue that allowing for-profits to take the stage will do just the opposite and create a two-tiered system where students with means get the four-year premium college experience and students without means cobble together a vocationally focused collection of micro-credentials of questionable quality. Robert Udell (2018) argues that “virtual students are under far more stress, with 70 percent of undergrads and 80 percent of graduate students working full or part time.” By contrast, the percentage of residential students who worked full time was just 25 percent. This suggests that economically disadvantaged students are more subject to the predatory lending practices and low completion rate of the worst of for-profit online universities. Daniel Markovits (2019), a professor at Yale Law School, notes, “In recent years, the ‘Ivy Plus’ colleges have enrolled more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.”
Schools such as Northeastern University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Louisiana State University are making sure that colleges are active participants in the process of legitimizing ADCs. They are partnering with businesses to combine traditional educational models with internships and direct relationships that provide pathways to employment. These schools are actively working to make sure that students and their parents don’t see college as a stepping-stone that can be circumvented.
We are at a turning point, much like the one we faced at the onset of online education in the late 1990s. Then, there was widespread skepticism about online education. Traditionalists deemed it less rigorous than classroom-based teaching. We see how that resistance to change worked out, as colleges that rejected online education are still scrambling to catch up with what has now become the norm in portfolios of academic offerings.
My position is that the deconstruction of the four-year degree as the pathway to upward mobility cannot be stopped. And so it is imperative that universities stay in the game to remain advocates of quality and accountability.
I’ve clearly come around from my initial response to digital badges as silly. But if they are to be taken seriously, I’d like to see institutions of higher education step up and provide a balance to the for-profit nature of the trend at present. (Companies such as Credly, a digital credentialing platform that mainly serves a corporate audience, are crowding the landscape.) ADCs could use a bit of scaffolding from the so-called ivory tower to ensure they will stand as long as the brick-and-mortar institutions that we have valued for so long. This is the best way to ensure that ADCs can provide value that lasts.
Bahney, A. (2019, June 6). College grads earn $30,000 a year more than people with just a high school degree.CNN Business. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/06/success/college-worth-it/index.html
College Board. (2020, January 14). A college education pays off: New College Board report. https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2020/college-education-pays-off-new-college-board-report
ICDE Working Group. (2019, January). The present and future of alternative digital credentials (ADCs). https://www.imsglobal.org/sites/default/files/articles/ICDE-ADC%20report-January%202019.pdf
Markovits, D. (2019, September 12). American universities must choose: Do they want to be equal or elite? Time. https://time.com/5676174/universities-equality-eliteness
Ubell, R. (2018, July 7). Does online education help low-income students succeed? EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-07-17-does-online-education-help-low-income-students-succeed
J. A. Miller, PhD, is the director of learning design for ansrsource, a learning design company. Before migrating into educational technology, she received her doctorate in English Literature from SUNY Buffalo. She has taught at SUNY Buffalo, the University of Vermont, Excelsior College, and NYU Online and has more than 20 years of experience as an online and classroom instructor.