Strategic Integration Challenges and Opportunities for Alternative Credentials in Higher Education


A recent study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) sheds light on the adoption of alternative credentials in higher education.

While many colleges prioritize online, professional, and continuing education, a significant number have yet to integrate alternative credentials strategically. The study delves into the challenges, opportunities, and varying business models associated with these credentials.

Strategic Integration Challenges and Opportunities for Alternative Credentials in Higher Education
(Photo : UNSPLASH / Stephanie Hau )

Embracing Alternative Credentials

Despite the growing market for higher education credentials, the study reveals that merely embracing alternative credentials is not enough. The strategic incorporation of these credentials into institutional plans is vital for maximizing their impact. Bruce Etter, UPCEA's senior director of research and consulting, underscores the need for a cohesive strategy, stating that institutions must now move beyond mere acceptance.

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Institutional Representation and Senior Leadership Buy-In

The study, conducted with 83 institutional representatives from diverse backgrounds, highlights that 69 percent of respondents felt senior leadership embraced alternative credentials. However, a notable 20 percent considered alternative credentials not to be a key component of their institution's strategic plan. This disparity suggests a gap between acknowledgment and strategic integration.

A Boon for Working Adults

As institutions grapple with enrollment challenges, alternative credentials emerge as a promising avenue to attract working adults and nontraditional students. The report notes a significant increase in the number of unique credentials-from 334,114 in 2018 to over one million in 2023. The surveyed colleges and universities offered an average of 64 alternative credentials each, showcasing the widespread adoption of these programs.

Decentralization Dilemma: Hindering Potential Gains

The study underscores a common challenge faced by institutions: the decentralized nature of efforts to create or expand alternative credential programs. When not integrated into an institution-wide approach, these programs may hinder their potential impact. Fragmented efforts can lead to competition for marketing resources and varying levels of program effectiveness.

The study reveals that 71 percent of institutions surveyed do not use the same business model for their alternative-certification programs. The absence of a standardized approach creates disparities in program development and the associated business models. Without uniformity, institutions may struggle to optimize their marketing efforts and compete effectively for student enrollment.

Net Revenue Uncertainty: A Data Deficiency

A significant knowledge gap highlighted by the study is the uncertainty surrounding net revenue generated by alternative-credential programs. Seventy-four percent of respondents either did not know or were unsure about the net revenue of these programs. The lack of concrete data on returns on investment poses challenges in advocating for the strategic integration of alternative credentials.

One glaring gap in the design of alternative-credential programs is the limited input from employers. While 28 percent of respondents consult employers always or very often, a significant 36 percent rarely or never seek employer input. Shalin Jyotishi from New America emphasizes the missed opportunity to align programs with workforce needs, stating that the integration of employer perspectives is crucial for effective program design.

Balancing Goals: Beyond Monetary Gains

While the study underscores the financial considerations associated with alternative credentials, experts emphasize the need for a broader perspective. Wilson Finch from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning suggests evaluating support for new student recruitment, progression to long-term credentials, and performance funding metrics. Shalin Jyotishi echoes this sentiment, asserting that while financial gains are a side benefit, the primary goal should be providing access to good jobs and meeting labor market needs.

As higher education navigates the landscape of alternative credentials, institutions must bridge the gap between acknowledgment and strategic integration. The study's findings underscore the importance of uniformity in business models, concrete data on net revenue, and active employer input. Strategic planning that aligns alternative-credential programs with broader institutional goals is imperative for maximizing their impact and meeting the evolving needs of students and the workforce.

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