Micro-credentials vs. college degrees: who wins?

Listen to the article


They say that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and we know that a college degree equals a qualification and eligibility for a job. The equation should be that easy, but in this era, a lot can change rather quickly. Micro-credentials are an idea that has existed for years, but there’s a recently renewed interest in its importance as a job qualification, and it’s becoming equally more pervasive as a concept among college students, grads and employees. Could this ultimately lead to less dependence on college degrees?

What are micro-credentials?

Washington-based National Education Association (NEA) defines a micro-credential as a short, competency-based recognition that allows a learner to demonstrate mastery in a particular area.

Giving a more detailed definition, Angus Laing, the executive dean of the Edinburgh Business School in UK, who also recently spoke at the American University in Cairo during a roundtable discussion on micro-credentials and lifelong learning at the 2023 AUC Business Forum, explains that micro-credentials are small, bite-sized pieces of learning for people at work that can be connected together into some form of qualification.

Micro-credentials are basically the certificates you receive, the courses you enroll in, or the training you get to become more eligible for a job, promotion, or broader theoretical and/or practical knowledge in your profession. They can be mostly obtained from universities or specialized other educational institutions.

How do employers perceive candidates with micro-credentials?

Could micro-credentials entirely replace a traditional college degree/program? Well, there’s a debate about that, and nobody can say it’s certain, but evidence suggests that employers think that candidates with traditional degrees paired with micro-credentials are much needed in the labor market. This indicates that micro-credentials could soon be a requirement for many jobs.

A report titled “The Future of Micro-credentials” by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) revealed that over 80 percent of [surveyed] organizations currently use micro-credentials for employee development. Moreover, about 70 percent of them think their companies could be either significantly or moderately more reliant on traditional four-year degrees for hiring in the near future, according to the report.

Coursera, one of the largest online learning websites providing a variety of courses in a large number of fields, surveyed nearly 5,000 students and employers across 11 countries—Australia, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), UK, and the U.S, in collaboration with two market research firms, Dynata and Repdata. The survey sought to explore the motivations, needs, and challenges of both students pursuing a degree and employers who seek to hire them. The survey came up with some interesting findings.

Employers were shown to be on average 72 percent more likely to hire a candidate who has earned a micro-credential. 88 percent of employers agree or strongly agree that a professional certificate strengthens a candidate’s application, and 77 percent of employers are already using or actively exploring skills-based hiring. In addition, 53 percent said finding applicants with the specific skills needed for the job was the biggest challenge they face when hiring recent graduates.

On micro-credentials provided by the companies themselves for employees to help them advance in their positions and/or develop their skills, Forbes says that organizations should be keen on making this an essential part of their growth. Employers should begin by identifying the critical skills and competencies they need to upskill and reskill their workforce. This will help them target the development of skills that suit their needs and fit into their strategies.

Do all types of micro-credentials suffice?

Heba El Shabrawy, HR director at AstraZeneca, says that not all micro-credentials are equal, and they’re not all absolutely beneficial. She argues that modern learners are overwhelmed, distracted, and impatient, according to recent studies. “They want short, blended learning models, and while I agree that micro credentials are much needed in today’s business world, I think that, for example, the diplomas we see today in marketing or HR lack focus and specialism and they don’t cover modern trends. As an employer, I wouldn’t necessarily hire someone because they have an HR diploma. I’d prefer more specialism or experience,” she adds.

Students and employees, too, are interested in lifelong learning

Responding to this need for certain specialized competencies and skills, students and employees across the globe show a growing interest in lifelong learning and micro-credentials.

“Among other compelling data points, we found that 90 percent of students and recent graduates said including industry micro-credentials in an academic program would make them more likely to enroll in that program,” explains Coursera in its survey. It adds, “Students and recent graduates globally believe industry micro-credentials make them more likely to land a job. 90 percent agree or strongly agree that earning an entry-level professional certificate will help them stand out to employers and secure jobs when they graduate – and 86 percent agree that a micro-credential would help them succeed in their job.”

This uncanny demand on micro-credentials makes you wonder: who funds those micro-credentials? Is it organizations or individuals?

Ghada Howaidy, associate dean of executive education at the AUC school of Business answers. She says that when the AUC Executive Education looks at its peers in the rest of the world, it notices that the revenue streams usually comes from corporate-customized programs, but in Egypt, the majority of the revenue streams tend to come from individuals who are paying for their own education in open enrollment programs to bridge the gap between how they were educated and what the job market needs. “This is a specificity in the Egyptian market. People are strongly investing to become more employable,” she adds.

The underlying driver of this need for micro-credentials is universities not providing enough of the practical, focused skills needed for individuals to get hired or stay in their jobs.

Universities can still save the day

We’ve established that the need for micro-credentials means that higher education institutions do not necessarily provide graduates with the skills needed to become ideal candidates in the competitive labor market, especially in business, but why is that?

“There is an increasing volume of literature that suggests that individual micro-credentials are not particularly attractive financially for business schools. They become attractive only if you stack them so they become long-term qualifications,” says Angus Laing, the executive dean of the Edinburgh Business School.

But that’s not the end of the story. “If universities want to be serious about micro-credentials, they have to know it takes significant investment in infrastructure. Companies have different corporate learning systems, so how do we plug into their corporate learning systems? That is a real challenge, but I believe that this needs to be the future of business schools,” he says.

Kevin Bradford, associate dean of undergraduate programs at UCI Paul Merage School of
Business, agrees. He says that bridging that gap between universities and the labor market is not impossible with the wise production of micro-credentials. “Micro credentials are nothing new; however, what is new is how we deliver them. It’s the challenge of creating the right products and getting credibility,” he added.

    Knowledge Partners


    School of Business
    American University in Cairo
    AUC Avenue – P.O. Box 74
    New Cairo 11835
    Email: BusinessForward@aucegypt.edu

    Copyrights © 2017 The American University in Cairo School of Business • All Rights Reserved

    Copyrights © 2017 The American University in Cairo School of Business • All Rights Reserved. Designed by Indigo.

    Copyrights © 2022 The American University in Cairo School of Business • All Rights Reserved.  Designed by Indigo.