Intrepid EdSurge reporter Rebecca Koenig published a piece a couple of weeks ago called “Employers Claim to Value Alternative Credentials. Do Their Practices Match Their Promises?” It delves into a Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) research report called “Making Alternative Credentials Work: A New Strategy for Human Resource Professionals.” I recommend reading the article and reading the report itself if it interests you.
I haven’t written much about alternative credentials, partly because I’ve been waiting for patterns to become more evident to me. Oddly, my recent post about Web3 in education catalyzed my thinking about the credentials topic. In both cases, proponents want to decentralize power structures by using technology to make centralization less necessary. But while decentralization can be facilitated by technology up to a point, it is also limited by the nature of humans as social animals.
Four ideas of “alternative credentials”
One of the problems we currently face when discussing alternative credentials is that there are (at least) four distinct ideas of what we mean by the term which are poorly differentiated in our discussion. While these different meanings are not necessarily incompatible, they aren’t automatically complimentary either. We risk confusion and mistakes if we aren’t clear about which drivers we are most concerned about when we talk to each other about them.
Folks like SHRM—a society for human resource managers—are concerned about companies being able to find the workers they need by increasing the talent pool and more precisely filtering for the actual skills they need. The current state of affairs, particularly for entry-level jobs, is that companies typically use degrees as crude proxies for competencies and then assume they’ll have to invest in a lot of on-the-job training with new employees. For SHRM’s constituents, skill-focused certifications from MOOCs, boot camps, and other sources potentially provide them with both more job candidates and more precise information about which candidates are likely to be able to hit the ground running.
The second group of alternative credential advocates is primarily concerned with affordability and equity. They want to help students for whom the cost (in both money and time) of a traditional college education is out-of-reach find their way to a living wage and a decent life. If students can get a decent-paying job with a certificate and then move up the pay ladder over time by getting additional credentials that can stack up to something more substantial. This group focuses on middle-skill jobs like electricians, dental hygienists, or paralegals. Interestingly, community colleges are increasingly active in this space. “Alternative credential” is not synonymous with “alternative provider.”
The third group focuses on white-collar jobs but more from the student’s perspective. They might be providing additional certifications to workers with undergraduate or even graduate degrees who want to advance in their careers. For example, a software engineer who wants to get into AI might take a MOOC micro masters program. On the entry-level side, the focus is on talented but vocationally-minded students who want to jump right into white-collar jobs. Unfortunately, even though this is a tiny part of the alternative credential picture, it gets a lot of hype, has an outsized influence on the conversation about the space, and is often tainted with Silicon Valley libertarian techno-utopianism. The stereotype is the teenage hacker who is intelligent and experienced enough to skip MIT and go straight to a job at Google. This stream of conversation is colored more than a little by libertarian techno-utopianism. “College is for losers. Go build a startup instead.” This is particularly unfortunate because it leads to us valorizing and privileging students who would probably do well no matter what over those in genuine need of an economically viable path to a decent career.
Then again, sometimes people use “alternative credential” to refer to a technological solution like a digital badge specification or platform. As with Web3, I have often heard optimism that these sorts of decentralized and democratized digital interchange formats will somehow facilitate one or more of the visions of alternative credentialing above. How is less clear. In fairness, some of the folks working in this space are trying to solve various problems, some of which are both concrete and realistic. But there can be an air of Web3-ish hype around digital badging as if somehow having a technological tool for issuing credentials will magically lead to a world in which education is “unbundled.”
While I’m laying out these different meanings of “alternative credential” because different readers will come to this post with different preconceptions about the term, I’m going to be focusing in this post on a problem that all of them have in common, which is the tension between “alternative” and “credential.” To what degree can the authority behind a credential be easily transferred to alternative providers? And to what degree can technology facilitate that decentralization?
What is a credential, anyway?
Before we talk about “alternative “credentials,” we should talk about what a credential is and where its utility comes from.
There was a time in the history of humanity before credentials existed. People didn’t need them. Wolfgang was the village blacksmith. If you needed blacksmithing done, you went to Wolfgang. He didn’t need a diploma. If your village had two blacksmiths, you asked around. Most of your fellow villagers would know the pros and cons of using Wolfgang versus Dieter. But by 1506, maybe your tiny hamlet of Munich grew to be the capital of Bavaria.1 There were too many people and too many blacksmiths to keep track of. And maybe too many blacksmiths for a healthy blacksmithing economy.
When human settlements grew large enough, craftspeople would typically begin to organize themselves into guilds. They helped control the problems of large-scale competition such as price wars, scam artists, or bad workmanship that might harm the profession.
Guilds used various tools to gain this economic power (some of which were less savory than others). One critical tool—not only for guilds but for human civilization—was certification. Guild membership often came with quality standards. As the guilds grew ever larger, they even created career paths that distinguished among skill levels, e.g., apprentice/journeyman/master. The guild certification became a proxy for asking around about Wolfgang versus Dieter. If Wolfgang was certified by the guild as a master blacksmith while Dieter was only a journeyman, that might help you decide without looking for references. And if you were a young male thinking about your career path, you had an idea of what your life and earning potential could be like if you apprenticed as a blacksmith.
Interestingly, one translation for both Latin words “collegium” and “universitas” is “guild.” Colleges and universities started as guilds that certified experts in various areas of scholarship like law and theology. And in meaningful ways, these organizations retain characteristics of guilds today. Establishing trust in alternative credentials is a bit like finding a way to establish trust in a strange blacksmith who hasn’t been guild-certified. In fact, the word “trust” is central to everything. Which quality signals can I trust?
How “alternative” can we get?
Early guilds benefitted from being closely tied to—and governed by—the vocational practitioners that benefited from the certification of expertise they provided. Modern colleges and universities have become somewhat unmoored from that for both good and bad reasons. But remember, the value of the guild credential comes from the credibility of its source. Trust in the credential-issuing entity is a proxy for the credibility of more direct evidence of competence. The idea that anybody can create a digitally readable badge doesn’t democratize credentials. And attaching direct evidence or competence as part of the digital package only matters if folks want to—and have the time to—look at that evidence. This might or might not happen when the job screening process has been narrowed down to a few candidates but definitely won’t with 50 or 100 candidates.
In fact, there’s very little in the alternative credentials world that is clearly new. Alternative credentials themselves are certainly not, as the SHRM report points out:
The alternative credentials marketplace is not new. AccordingMaking Alternative Credentials Work: A New Strategy for Human Resource Professionals
to Preetha Ram, former CEO and co-founder of OpenStudy.com,
“Postsecondary certificates, professional certificates, university
extension courses, etc. have long co-existed with universities and
For example, tech companies like Oracle, Cisco, and Microsoft have sold credentials for decades.
I would argue that we effectively have had a functional digital badging system for quite some time as well. It’s called a “résumé scanner.” If I’m an IT professional with a Cisco certification, I’m overwhelmingly likely to have something like “Cisco CCNP Data Center Certification” printed on my résumé. And if the hiring manager has listed that certification as a job requirement, their résumé scanner will be keyed to pick that up on candidate résumés. If the Cisco “badge” serves as a meaningful trust proxy to the humans involved, it will likely be picked up and transferred digitally. The badge is digital in roughly the same way as a printed QR code.
The most significant barrier to the growth of alternative credentials is trust in the credential-issuing proxies. Technology can make trust-building easier, and it certainly can make working together easier once trust is established. But it probably can’t replace human trust in this case. The kind of trust we’re talking about is first-pass. It’s the kind that helps employers trim down many candidates that they don’t have time to evaluate in the first place. For that reason, having a digital credential with attached artifacts showing the student’s work doesn’t help here. When the current employer requirement is “must have a BS in computer science or equivalent,” the “equivalent” being offered must be expressed in a form that is both more trustworthy regarding the employer’s actual requirements and equally fast and easy to evaluate. It requires human trust-at-a-glance. The same level of trust that leads an HR manager to say, “Scan the résumés for ‘Cisco CCNP Data Center Certification.'”
Perhaps a more fleshed-out concrete example will help.
Healthcare is interesting because it has many middle-skill jobs and necessarily has a lot of credentialing. I will be drawing my example from the “Medical Billing and Coding Careers Guide 2022” page on Nurse.org. I encourage you to go to that page and read it in its entirety. It’s not long.
The gist of it is to provide career paths for people who are interested in starting as medical coding and billing specialists:
For reference, while the Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) here in Massachusetts provides a two-year associate’s degree in medical coding, they also offer a one-year certification program. The total cost is about $7,000 before financial aid. So this is a good, flexible way for somebody who doesn’t have a lot of money or time to embark on a career—with a national average salary of about $44,000. (It’s $48,000 in my state.)
Where could you go from there? The guide offers several possibilities. For example, you can become a medical coding auditor with “several years of experience as a medical coder” and a medical coding auditing certificate from the AAPC. The average salary is about $95,000, which is quite a jump. What is AAPC?
AAPC was founded in 1988 to provide professional certification to physician-based medical coders and to elevate the standards of medical coding. Since then, AAPC has grown to more than 200,000 members worldwide and now offers 28 certifications encompassing the entire business side of healthcare.
So AAPC is an “alternative” credential provider. They provide the certification exams and, separately, certification training. They were founded in 1988. Cutting-edge stuff. Joking aside, I have to wonder how long it took for AAPC’s credentials to become so widely recognized and accepted within the healthcare industry. It probably wasn’t instantaneous.
Other career paths are less straightforward. If you want to become a medical coding manager (average salary: ~$85,600), you would need several years of experience, a certificate from either AAPC or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA)—another “alternative” credential provider—plus some management experience.
I’ve put “alternative” in scare quotes because I doubt that AAPC and AHIMA are viewed within the medical industry as alternative credential providers in the same way that, say, coding boot camps are. The more trust (and authority) the credential provider has accrued, the less they are viewed as “alternative” providers. Which is the point.
A few implications
After all this, I’m not sure I have any deep insights. But here are a few ideas to chew on:
- Alternative credentials will tend to grow and proliferate at human speed, not technology speed.
- Organizations that already have trust within an industry will be much better positioned to build alternative credentials.
- Alternative pathways, like the ones described on Nurse.org, exist but are more plentiful in some fields than in others and generally harder to find than they should be.
- Digital credentials are not an obvious route to faster proliferation of alternative credentials. (Even if they are Web3 credentials.) They might be a route to faster propagation of alternative pathways.
- Guilds existed in some form at least as far back as ancient Sumeria. [↩]