Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

CGS Report Delves Into Under-Researched Field of Graduate-Level Microcredentials

Non-degree certificate programs at the graduate level are rarely researched, an issue that the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) aimed to address with the release of its new report.Dr. Matthew LintonDr. Matthew LintonCouncil of Graduate Schools

Through surveys, focus groups, and interviews of employers, researchers, and higher ed institutions, CGS sought to expand on what is known about non-degree programs – referred to in the report as microcredentials – at the post-baccalaureate level. The end result, "Microcredentials and the Master’s Degree" dives into a number of questions surrounding the emerging field of microcredentials, including their purpose, legitimacy, and equity.

CGS researchers focused on examining microcredentials that are credit-bearing, are documented on academic transcripts, and require bachelor’s degrees. This focus was mainly to avoid confusion among the various types of microcredentials out there, some which are still nascent in the higher ed landscape, the report noted.

Though graduate-level microcredentials are often perceived and talked about as alternatives to master’s degrees, findings indicate that that is commonly not the case, said report co-author Dr. Matthew Linton, senior manager for programs and publications at CGS.

“What we saw in our research was that, often times, individuals are getting these certificates and other microcredentials alongside master's degree programs or on the way to master's degree programs,” Linton said. “So really, it's not an 'either-or.' Often times, it's an 'and.'"

According to the report, the most common post-baccalaureate microcredential programs at colleges and universities are in the fields of teaching, data science and analytics, interdisciplinary programs, management, psychology, and health care.

At most of the surveyed institutions (77%), academic departments and programs were the entities developing and administering the microcredential, with the same faculty most likely to teach both the certificate and degree programs. And many of these microcredential programs were found to be rather small – 12 students per program was the median.

As for whether such microcredentials were “stackable” – meaning that getting multiple credentials builds towards degree attainment – there was a split down the middle among the certificate programs. Regarding their most-enrolled graduate-level certificates, about half of program directors said their certificate was stackable.

Certain microcredentials may be un-stackable by design, so that those who complete them can enter the workforce immediately with their new in-demand skills, Linton said. And in other cases, the microcredential may already be entwined into degree programs and can be taken for additional skill certification upon graduation.

“There are things called embedded and partially embedded graduate certificates ... [that are] embedded in a master's degree program, ... which may broaden their career pathways or may also signal to employers that they have additional expertise in a certain skill,” Linton said.

However, even if such microcredentials are not stackable, they may still influence admissions and access into master’s degree programs, according to the report. More than 40% of graduate schools surveyed responded that admissions were “simplified” for those holding certificates, and around 7% even said that earning one resulted in guaranteed admission to other programs – some for certificates and others for degrees.

The report cited North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State as one such example, where microcredentials were said to be a pathway into graduate education that requires less investment and may be valuable for students facing academic challenges. At the HBCU, students denied admission into master’s programs may be offered enrollment into graduate-level certificate programs instead and can later potentially be admitted after microcredential completion.

“Using the graduate certificate as a pathway into master’s degree programs has several benefits,” according to the case study. “It provides the learner with an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to do graduate-level work even if they do not possess the undergraduate GPA or test scores to be admitted to a master’s program directly.”

Having microcredential programs can also allow for innovation in educational design, according to the report. In the case of Marquette University, the school employs a “hub-and-spoke” model, wherein the “hub” is a data science certificate with several “spokes” branching out into degree programs in different fields. The report’s authors described how this unique model allows the school to replace the different program “spokes” as needed with little overall disruption and to incorporate in-demand skills into instruction without having to change the individual degree programs themselves.

Offering microcredentials can affect department diversity for certain populations as well, giving higher ed institutions “great opportunities to recruit graduate students from non-traditional backgrounds,” said report co-author Dr. Enyu Zhou, a senior research analyst at CGS.

According to the report, post-baccalaureate microcredential programs were found to have a better likelihood of increasing representation of women, part-time students, and older students in academic departments’ degree programs, though only a few program directors attested to their programs bolstering minority representation.

Additionally, the report’s authors indicated that there was no clear consensus in the realm of higher ed on how often such microcredential programs are reviewed. Approximately a fifth of respondents reported reviews every 1-3 years, more than three-tenths reported reviews at intervals of more than three years, and over a quarter reported no regular review process at all.

Two-thirds of academic departments also responded that they evaluated their most-enrolled certificate program at the same rate that they evaluated their master’s degree programs, according to CGS.

"One of the things we were trying to understand a little bit is whether or not the same criteria and structure for reviewing a degree program makes sense for these graduate certificates,” Linton said. “One of the questions that comes out of this is, since so many of these programs are designed with workforce responsiveness in mind, if employers should have a bigger voice in the review process and then whether or not career outcomes should be higher on the list of points that are used to evaluate curriculum."

As it stands now, career outcomes and employer satisfaction are not data points often used by schools to assess their microcredential programs, with 6.5% of surveyed programs using the former and 2.3% using the latter, according to Linton.

The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers