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Microcredentials: Can They Help Stop-Outs Graduate From College?

A new survey indicates that many stop-outs could resume degree programs if more colleges offered academic credits through microcredentials, plus granted credits for prior learning.

As we pointed out in our November 2023 feature article “University of Texas and Coursera Expand Online Microcredential Program,” microcredentials generally refer to credit, noncredit, and professional certificates awarded by colleges and universities in exchange for completing courses and programs. Their market is booming, and according to Credential Engine—a nonprofit which tracks this market’s growth—their numbers have surged in recent years from 334,000 awarded during 2018 to over a million in 2023.

The online, professional and continuing education association UPCEA commissioned the new poll in collaboration with StraighterLine, an online education course provider. Titled “Disengaged Learners & Return Paths to Higher Education,” the survey asked 1,100 former college students between the ages of 18 and 64 about their stop-out experiences. The poll also asked about key preferences and factors that might motivate these disengaged learners to resume their degree programs.

The October 2023 poll emerged during a period when the some college/no degree (SCND) segment of America’s population appears to be exploding. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that in July 2021, about 40.4 million former students had started college, but left prior to earning a credential. That’s almost 20 percent of the nation’s working-age population of 204 million adults. Moreover, it’s also a 3.6 percent gain of 1.4 million more former students over the cumulative total of college stop-outs as of 2020.

As they rapidly approach the traditional-age “enrollment cliff” brought about because parents stopped having children during the 2008 Great Recession, colleges and universities are increasingly seeking to boost their enrollments by attracting re-entry students from this SCND group. That fact makes this study especially relevant for both stopped-out former students as well as college administrators.

Scott Jaschik, the respected co-founder and former CEO of Inside Higher Ed, expresses concern that several colleges are already approaching this enrollment cliff. In an extended October 2023 interview on the American Council on Education’s dotEDU podcast, Jaschik argues that the current funding crises at both West Virginia University—a flagship state institution—as well as Miami University demonstrate that this funding cliff is already affecting some colleges. He also asserts that this trend will impact many community colleges and, roughly two years later, the four-year universities fed by community college transfer students.

“The survey sheds light on the complex—and often multi-faceted—reasons why individuals discontinue their education in the first place and what institutions can do to help these learners chart a course back to higher education and long-term pathways to upward mobility,” said Dr. Amy Smith, StraighterLine’s chief learning officer, in a statement. “Returning students are more cost- conscious and ROI-focused than ever. Not surprisingly, they expect institutions to find ways to offer credit and credentials for their academic, work, and lived experiences—and we owe them no less.”

Key Findings In Brief

One of the survey’s most significant findings was that disengaged students are often close to graduation. Almost 60 percent had finished at least half of the credit-hours required by their degree program, with 29 percent close to halfway-finished and 28 percent almost done or more than three-quarters finished.

Most of these respondents—61 percent—want to finish their education. Twenty-nine percent say that they’re “very” or “extremely likely” to complete their degrees, with 32 percent saying that they’re somewhat likely to finish.

Of course, career and financial motives appear to be driving respondents towards completion more than any other factors, with the group most motivated to finish their degrees appearing to be the almost 50 percent who reported that their careers have stalled. About 80 percent cite these financial and career incentives, with 48 percent hoping that they’ll earn a salary boost from completing their degree, and 32 percent hoping that resuming their college education will lead to a career change or promotion.

Three Strategies

UPCEA’s researchers argue that federal and state policymakers and college administrators only have three strategies available if they urgently want to attract and rapidly re-enroll more disengaged students—before the enrollment cliff drains off their college enrollments and budgets.

One of these strategies has been tried before by several institutions, but the poll results suggest that alternative isn’t attractive to most students. Fortunately, two others show promise.

Degree Completion Programs

The first possible strategy might establish new academic curricula at colleges and universities known as degree completion programs. These are special programs geared to the unique needs of re-entry students, most of whom are working adults who can only participate if they’re offered accommodations, such as flexible class scheduling and online or hybrid-online course configurations.

Although research collecting examples of these programs is difficult to locate, Georgetown University, Colorado State University, the University of Nebraska, the University of the Pacific, and the University of San Francisco are among the colleges who reportedly set up such programs within the past decade.

UPCEA’s authors argue that the 40 million adults with some college but no credential face a difficult choice. The researchers ask, “should they remain in a career in which they feel stuck, or should they return to a system that provided a questionable return on their previous investment?” In other words, the authors suggest that degree completion programs are merely modified versions of the systems that only offered these students questionable returns during their first attempts at college.

The study reports that even though nearly half of the respondents believe that they’ve hit a career plateau—where they’re stuck or out of advancement opportunities—only 29 percent were extremely likely or very likely to enroll in a college’s degree completion program. “Clearly, the traditional degree completion program alone is not enough to entice many learners to return to higher education,” conclude the researchers.

Stackable Microcredentials

However, UPCEA’s team suggests that new models that offer increased value could help shift this balance. Stackable microcredentials, which we explored in depth in our article about Coursera’s partnership with the University of Texas, were perceived as providing a much more viable option by the respondents in this survey’s sample.

When asked how microcredentials might affect their interest in pursuing an undergraduate degree, 76 percent of the respondents said it would boost their interest. Of that 76 percent, 32 percent reported that it would greatly increase their interest. So, unlike the degree completion programs, “bite-sized” microcredentials provide a segmented option that appears to entice these potential students’ interest while lowering their risks of investing substantial amounts of their time, energy, and tuition dollars.

However, the researchers caution that stackable microcredential course options might not necessarily be available at desirable prices. The study suggests that’s a significant concern. In fact, when making a decision about a potential degree completion program, 68 percent of the respondents said that reduced cost amounted to their most important decision factor.

The analysts say that it’s understandable that these respondents might feel wary of making another large investment in higher education. “It is important to emphasize that these individuals have already spent considerable sums of money without receiving any credential that demonstrates the knowledge, skills, or competencies they’ve learned,” says the team.

Credit for Life or Work Experience

The chance to earn academic credit for valuable experience proved far and away the most effective tactic that would re-engage the respondents in this sample as college students.

Almost three-quarters reported this approach would be extremely or very effective, with 41 percent reporting it would be “extremely” effective and 32 percent reporting it would be “very” effective. Moreover, almost four-fifths of the sample reported that if a school offered credit for prior learning, that would greatly increase (36 percent) or increase (42 percent) their interest in pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Analysis and Conclusions

Overall, here’s how the researchers summed up their study’s results:

Institutions must consider recognizing learning that takes place beyond their rigid educational borders. . .The findings of this study reinforce the reality that institutions need to rethink their degree completion offerings and increase value to attract the some college, no credential learner.

Microcredentials, stackable pathways, and credit for life or work experience all offer considerable benefits that increase learner interest and mitigate their risk. Institutions that are able to develop and communicate these layers of value will see the greatest success in the years to come.

Microcredentials: Not A Strategic Priority at All Colleges?

Given this research showing that stackable microcredentials demonstrate tremendous potential for enticing stopped-out students to finish their degrees, one would think that all colleges would now treat microcredentials as a strategic priority. However, a surprising December 2023 follow-up survey by UPCEA suggests otherwise. Titled “Alternative Credentials: Business and Program Models,” this new Walmart-funded research suggests that a significant proportion of institutions still haven’t included alternative credentials within their strategic plans.

Polled during the fall of 2023, this survey’s respondents included 83 administrators at a representative sample of colleges and universities from across the United States. UPCEA also interviewed six focus groups comprising college administrators who oversee online, extension, continuing and professional education programs.

In the study’s curious main takeaway, 20 percent of the respondents reported that their institution did not include alternative credentials as a key strategic plan component.

In another surprise, even though a crucial objective of microcredential programs involves training students for high-paying jobs that meet labor market demands, not all colleges worked closely with employers on the designs of their alternative credential programs or component courses. Although 28 percent of the poll respondents reported that they always or very often collaborate with employers while developing their microcredential curricula, 37 percent collaborated with employers “somewhat” often—and another 36 percent reported that they rarely or never consult them.

This follow-up study’s results imply some strategies that potential students might consider. For example, when comparing alternative credential programs offered by several competing colleges, potential students should actively look for evidence of close employer involvement—such as an authoritative employer advisory board that meets regularly with faculty and administrators.

If evidence of support from employers isn’t immediately apparent from the microcredential program’s promotional website, student shoppers should call the college and ask questions. In response, admissions counselors should be able to show potential students online resources where they can review the college’s track record of employer support.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.