To Unlock the Value of the Degree, Break It Down: How Digital Credentials Might Bend the Curve on Degree Skepticism

Less than half of Americans now believe that going to college will pay off with higher lifetime earnings. And employers, faced with seemingly endemic skills gaps, are beginning to look beyond the degree as a proxy for skills that matter in the future of work. Earlier this year, JPMorgan announced it will end the practice of on-campus recruiting, and companies like Google are dropping degree requirements altogether.

At the core of rising degree skepticism is an all-or-nothing approach that treats attainment of skills as binary. Job-seekers with degrees “pass go” in the hiring process. Individuals who don’t are sorted and filtered out of the talent pipeline.

Employers, in turn, place artificial constraints on the available talent pool in an era where just a third of adults have a bachelor’s degree. The all-or-nothing paradigm is especially problematic for the 86% of low-socioeconomic status students that leave college with nothing to show for it.

Against that backdrop, a growing number of employers are turning to digital credentials to better understand the skills and competencies of job seekers. And a growing number of colleges are awarding digital credentials that provide verifiable evidence of skills and competencies that have been learned in college, even in the absence of a degree.

Breaking the degree down into its component parts with digital credentials could unlock potential for the 31 million Americans with some college but no degree. And it could reinvigorate employer confidence in the role that colleges play in developing skills and competences vital to the future of work. Here’s how:

Build confidence in the role of colleges by closing skills — and communications — gaps

The Chronicle of Higher Education called the skills gap “the idea that launched a thousand strategic plans.” While new technologies may change what is taught in classrooms, institutions may find that closing the skills gap also depends on how the skills they already teach are bundled and communicated.

With digital credentials, existing coursework can be bundled in a way that is aligned to employer needs and described in ways that mirror workforce expectations. It’s an approach that the Colorado Community College System has already implemented, leading to new job opportunities for their students and improved skills transparency for employers. In one case, a Colorado architecture firm was able to quickly fill positions that had been open for months after realizing that a particular badge from the Colorado Community College System indicated that those students had all the knowledge required to succeed in the position.

These students — and those who had graduated from the program before — all had the requisite skills to succeed in the workforce, but lacked a way to clearly articulate that to employers desperate for talent. Digital credentials closed this communications gap — and demonstrated the effective role of higher education in workforce preparation.

Create pathways for those with some college but no degree

In addition to providing more granular insights into the abilities of would-be employees, digital credentials can signal evidence of skills that allow students to unlock the value of higher education, long before a degree is complete. This is particularly powerful for those students who work while learning. Imagine a student able to move from a frontline position to a higher-paying middle-skills role based on a certification earned while on the path to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. This allows employers to find skilled talent that might be hiding in plain sight, and removes the barriers of the all-or-nothing credentialing paradigm.

Currently, a student who does not earn a degree but completes 90 percent of her studies — taking on 90 percent of the debt in the process — currently receives none of the labor market value of the degree, despite obtaining 90 percent of the skills bundled within it. This is a well-known challenge in higher education, and one that initiatives like reverse transfer are intended to fix. Stackable digital credentials take reverse transfer one step further, breaking a degree program into even smaller chunks of demonstrated competencies and providing greater opportunities for those on their way to a degree.  

If the purpose of college degrees is to recognize the knowledge and skills of students in a way that is meaningful for both students and employers, they currently are not meeting their full potential. Unbundling the degree into not just stackable, but also portable, digital credentials can help fight against degree skepticism by increasing skills transparency for employers and providing new opportunities for those students with some college and no degree (yet).