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University of Texas and Coursera Expand Online Microcredential Program

In August 2023, the University of Texas launched an expanded microcredential program designed to better prepare UT students and alumni for changing workforce demands within the State of Texas. Part of the UT system’s initiative known as Texas Credentials for the Future, the new program will provide 240,000 students from the nine UT campuses with access to Coursera’s Career Academy at no additional cost. The Academy comprises an online instructional platform offering over 35 completion certificates from blue-chip tech firms like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and Meta.

“Microcredentials are a powerful and effective tool in producing graduates who are both broadly educated and specifically skilled, giving them a competitive edge in the labor market while also enhancing their overall undergraduate experience,” said University of Texas Chancellor James Milliken. “The UT System’s continued investment in microcredential courses is critical to meeting our state’s growing workforce demands while always preparing our students for success.”

What Are Microcredentials?

Traditional degrees certify the completion of academic programs in higher education equivalent to at least a year of full-time study. In the typical college experience, “students take a course by attending class for a semester, and their college then bundles these semester-length offerings into credentials,” says Dr. Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “This means that degree-earners frequently sit through a lot of courses they don’t want or need, while employers seeking particular skills have to wade through a lot of extraneous stuff.”

By contrast, microcredential programs are different—and much shorter. According to the University of Colorado registrar’s office, microcredentials provide a means to recognize and document a student’s acquisition of specific skills or competencies. Brief, focused courses that often meet for as little as only a week yield academic microcredential credits that students can “stack” to earn certifications in marketable, high-demand skills.

Because of hot demand for tech employees familiar with the latest hardware and software systems, some of the most popular fields for these certifications include digital marketing, tech support, cybersecurity, and data analytics.

Typically upon a student’s successful completion of a microcredential program encompassing two or more courses, they’ll also receive a digital badge—a modern kind of electronic trophy that enables them to display and share their educational achievement online across a wide range of platforms. “Just as diplomas serve to recognize degrees, digital badges are artifacts that offer recognition and storytelling about micro-credentials,” says Colorado’s registrar.

But these badges can also contain much more information than any diploma ever did. Where diplomas only certify a degree holder’s college or university, their degree program’s field of study, and the school’s accreditation, badges can also contain metadata about the program’s requirements and learning objectives. Plus, the badges might even contain links to a portfolio of the student’s completed assignments, along with endorsements from key authorities like their professors.

Not only are the badges portable, but all this metadata also makes the badges independently verifiable. Essentially, the badges empower the students to share and display the credentials that the badges represent any way students prefer.

Microcredentials’ MOOC Origins

University of Texas officials trumpet their assertion that their school’s innovative Coursera partnership will offer their learner community the most comprehensive industry-recognized microcredential program nationwide. That might be true, but the Texas program isn’t the first.

Research universities initially offered microcredentials not long after MOOCs—massive open online courses—suddenly gained popularity around the time of Coursera’s founding in 2012 as an online software platform specially built for those courses. Students who took MOOC classes from the universities for academic credit needed credentials demonstrating their competence, and microcredentials soon emerged to fill that need.

As early as 2016, the PBS NewsHour had profiled a pioneering microcredential initiative launched by Georgetown University to help its undergraduates land their first professional jobs. Moreover, the State University of New York won recognition in 2018 as the first American research university system to offer brief courses across their campuses that awarded microcredential credits.

Dr. Hess also points out that similar credentials have also been offered for a very long time by community colleges and industry certification programs. However, he believes that what microcredentialing may change could be “the scale and scope of things.” He says that “new technologies make feasible a more bespoke, robust, and employer-friendly market, with a massive number of increasingly hyper-specialized credentials that may be especially well-suited to the speed of an information economy.”

How UT’s Microcredential Program Evolved

In the University of Texas case, this new Coursera collaboration expands an experimental UT microcredential program initially financed by grants from the Strada Educational Foundation in 2022. Strada’s pilot initiative evaluated results from offering microcredentials within undergraduate curricula for a set of UT majors that produced graduates traditionally earning the lowest salaries among the university’s alumni.

The Strada pilot’s success yielded a three-year Phase 2 grant that extended the foundation’s initial funding, then prompted the UT Regents to invest $2 million to continue the initiative. Rebranded as Texas Credentials for the Future, Google’s investment financing UT’s first 500 career certificate licenses quickly followed.

TCF’s program manager Dr. Kelvin Bentley wants at least 30,000 undergraduates earning credit within the program by 2025. He told Inside Higher Ed’s Lauren Coffey:

Employers are saying, “We need people with better skills,” and universities are saying, “We have them,” and they speak different languages. With microcredentials, it’s a part of an ongoing conversation to get out of silos and get back to the table to figure out how best to prepare students for the world of work.

By a busy undergraduate’s standards, UT’s mostly tech-focused certificate programs require a substantial amount of extra study, ranging between three and six hours weekly over four to six months. Nevertheless, the free courses available to the UT community from Coursera’s Academy add a wide range of specific, industry-relevant, and in-demand skills to standard undergraduate curricula. They include:

  • Data analysis
  • Cybersecurity
  • User experience design
  • Application development
  • Social media marketing

Coursera and Texas officials emphasize that microcredential instruction within UT’s undergraduate curricula is meant to “complement but not replace” academic coursework. However, UT’s Jindal School of Management on the Dallas campus says it will offer extra course credit towards graduation for students who complete some of the certificates, such as one from IBM in information technology management.

Accreditation of Microcredential Programs?

The Texas-Coursera partnership comes when academic regulators appear to be signaling their increasing interest in the quality of microcredential education.

For example, in September 2023, the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission launched a new initiative to analyze and report on the quality of alternative credentials offered through colleges and universities by third-party providers. HLC accredits higher education institutions across 19 states.

“As the largest institutional accreditor, we have directly witnessed the rapid expansion of alternative credentials and the confusion and questions about quality and return on investment that has resulted—both for colleges and universities and for learners,” said HLC’s President Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley in a statement.

Called the Credential Lab and partially funded by the Lumina Foundation, HLC’s new initiative will offer an assurance structure to evaluate the quality of certificate and non-degree courses offered by external content providers that partner with colleges and universities. Given that only non-degree programs displayed an enrollment increase during spring 2023 with a 4.8 percent gain, observers viewed HLC’s move as a significant step towards normalizing the growing enrollments in alternative credential programs among both traditional-aged and adult college students.

Microcredentials’ Earnings Controversy

Despite the latest big bet on microcredentials by the University of Texas System, some experts have raised questions about their effectiveness. One of the more significant concerns that’s sparked controversy relates to the capability of microcredentials to drive higher earnings, even when stacked.

For example, a 2021 large-scale survey of 14,000 respondents conducted by Gallup found that compared to adults holding a college degree alone, adults who hold both a degree and a non-degree credential reported that their education delivered more value. The respondents reported that their enhanced education helped them achieve their goals and made them attractive job candidates at higher rates than the degree-only respondents.

However, the enhanced-education group also reported the disconcerting finding that their reported earnings weren’t substantially higher than college graduates without any non-degree credentials.

Gallup’s research mirrors some of the results in recent RAND Corporation studies suggesting that more of the variance in earnings could be attributed to college degrees than to stacked microcredentials. Overall, RAND found that higher earnings can result from stacking credentials, but the types of credentials earned determines the gains in earnings.

For example, in multistate studies of students who’ve earned microcredentials, those who continue on to earn degrees reap the largest earnings gains. In fact, RAND’s studies in Colorado and Ohio discovered that stacking multiple certificates resulted in limited or zero gains in earnings—unless the survey respondents also earned a degree. The researchers also found that those students who continue to earn degrees receive the largest gains in earnings.

RAND’s researchers also report that earnings gains from stacked credentials vary widely across employment fields. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields like manufacturing and engineering technology, IT, and healthcare drove earnings up the most, while nontechnical fields like education/family, consumer sciences, and culinary arts posted smaller gains.

Clearly, potential students need to act as smart shoppers when evaluating possible college and university enrollments, and these Gallup and RAND studies suggest they also need to act conscientiously when considering microcredential programs as well.

Writing in an August 2023 op-ed essay published by Inside Higher Ed, RAND’s education and workplace policy analyst Dr. Lindsay Daugherty offered this perspective about the relationship between credentials and earnings outcomes:

It is essential that individuals have clear information on the earnings potential of different credentials and pathways so they can make informed decisions about college enrollment. States and colleges can use this information on earnings to identify credentials that stand to see the largest gains in earnings, and ensure that proper resources are invested in these credentials.

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.