Credit where it’s due: Students at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Career and Technical Institute receive both college credit and a professional certification in metalworking for learning to use high-tech computer-controlled machining equipment such as this precision lathe. Credit:

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Web browser maker Mozilla launched in 2011 to promote what they call “digital badges” to anyone who can demonstrate that they’ve mastered a specific skill. Much like Boy Scout merit badges, participants can earn their way up the badge ladder. Aspiring Web designers, for example, can earn a badge as a “Code Whisperer,” an “Editor,” a “Div Master,” or a “Super Styler,” depending on their ability to demonstrate their coding skills and to build their own Web projects. At the top are the “HTML Basic” and “I am a Webmaker” badges, stepping stones for becoming the Eagle Scout of the Mozilla digital badge world: a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

Each badge earned gets you an icon to display on your digital resume or as part of your online profile, which you can show to prospective employers. More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills. At the annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative this summer, former President Bill Clinton endorsed the idea of badging and urged more employers to participate.

While badges are gaining steam, they are actually just one example of many new so-called skills-based credentials that are cropping up in different industries—from Web design to retail to manufacturing—thanks to employers’ and students’ growing disenchantment with traditional college degrees.

From an employer’s perspective, traditional degrees aren’t always all that useful, even though most jobs today require the high level of skills that post-secondary education is supposed to confer. While degrees serve as a kind of baseline measure of a job candidate’s reliability—this person showed up for class (most of the time) for X number of years—they don’t reveal much about an applicant’s actual skills. Because they really only measure the amount of time a student has spent in a classroom, rather than the skills a student has acquired, degrees confer little beyond the selectivity of the college that granted them.

From the students’ perspective, earning a college degree is increasingly prohibitively expensive. It’s also often impossibly time-consuming, especially for the growing number of prospective students who are also trying to juggle family and a full-time job. But as long as traditional degrees are the only admission ticket to better-paying jobs, people with aspirations, who often have valuable on-the-job skill sets but no degree to prove it, can find themselves unable to move up in life.

With all this in mind, a new movement has arisen that is championing alternative avenues to credentials and traditional college degrees. In some cases, companies are bypassing traditional higher education entirely by creating new credentialing systems from scratch, like those Mozilla badges. In other cases, companies have begun partnering with traditional institutions of higher education, such as community colleges or local four-year universities, that are willing to offer their workers college credit for the skills they learn on the job.

Ultimately, these innovations could be a significant boon to students. Particularly for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the benefit could be better access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education—a must in the changing job market. But these innovations could also threaten the business model of traditional colleges and universities that are unwilling to adapt.

As the senior vice president for the nonprofit Manufacturing Institute, Brent Weil hears complaints from his member companies all the time. When he asks them how they find new workers to hire, the top of the list is word of mouth and the second is for-profit staffing agencies. At the bottom of the list, “somewhere near the margin of error,” he says, is the current system of higher education, which, he argues, fails to produce enough qualified graduates.

In its 2011 “skills gap” report, the institute claimed that as many as 600,000 jobs were going unfilled due to a shortage of workers with the right skills, especially the higher-order skills that are increasingly a must in technology-driven, advanced manufacturing. In addition to specific skills such as precision machining, manufacturers say they need people who can work in teams, solve problems, and communicate with their colleagues, as well as simply show up on time. In theory, a certificate or degree from, say, a community college, should be a guarantee that a person has gained these work habits and thinking skills. In practice, too often, it is not.

Frustrated by this state of affairs, the manufacturing industry began developing its own system of industry-approved credentials for prospective employees. In 2011, the Manufacturing Institute unveiled a pyramid of “stackable credentials” that workers can collect in the same way that budding Webmasters can earn a progression of badges from Mozilla.

At the bottom of the pyramid is a basic credential—the National Career Readiness Certificate developed by the ACT testing service—attesting to the core workplace skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork, that every worker is expected to have. At the top are a variety of “skills certifications,” also organized by increasing levels of knowledge, that workers can earn in specific jobs such as machining, welding, construction, and automation.

“Machining Level I,” for example, qualifies a worker for entry-level jobs, while “Machining Level III” would put someone in the running for the highest-paid and most advanced work—with a potential salary of up to $80,000. In the past two years, more than 84,000 manufacturing workers have earned certifications under the new system, and the industry’s goal is to issue at least 500,000 by 2016.

As with badges, the new system standardizes the skill sets required by manufacturing into an organized system that the entire industry has agreed to recognize. In the past, workers and employers had to pick through as many as 450 different certificates of varying quality, offered by a slew of industry trade groups, many of whose revenues were based on the fees collected from offering credentials, as well as by community and for-profit colleges of dubious merit (think Sally Struthers promising on late-night TV that you, too, could become a mechanic by mail).

Under the new system, each industry-endorsed credential indicates a defined set of skills and is issued only by accredited providers. To earn a credential, workers must pass both a standardized written test and a practical skills assessment (for example, building a part). Like the euro, which replaced the lira, franc, drachma, and so on, the new credentials are intended to be the industry’s common currency.

As a result, Weil says, the new credentials provide both portability and precision about a worker’s or job applicant’s skills. The result is a market value “above and beyond college.” In fact, he says, “in some cases, employers prefer certification over a two-year degree.”

Moreover, these credentials can be earned through multiple pathways, not just by going to school. Current workers, for example, can apply for certifications based on skills they’ve learned or are learning on the job (and thus have a portable credential they can take elsewhere, which they didn’t have before).

Workers can also pick up skills in apprenticeship programs organized by the Department of Labor, company training courses, and industry-sponsored workshops, and, of course, in school. The industry-endorsed National Institute for Metalworking Skills, for example, accredits dozens of institutions across the country that are teaching the skills necessary to get an industry credential, including career and technical schools, military bases, job corps centers, and traditional colleges. Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, for example, is one of roughly forty schools nationwide that now specialize in teaching to industry standards in fields like laboratory engineering and “computer numerical controlled” technology, a form of high-tech machining.

The potential for anyone to earn credentials through a variety of means could especially benefit older, displaced, or disadvantaged workers for whom traditional education is not an option. This is a major reason why the White House and several foundations have championed the manufacturers’ efforts.

At the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, for example, prospective workers can take part in a twenty-four-week accelerated credentialing program as part of the Manufacturing Institute’s Right Skills Now Initiative, geared toward unemployed, displaced, and low-skilled workers. Participants in this program spend eighteen weeks in the classroom learning computer numerical controlled technology followed by a six-week paid internship. At the end of the program, students earn a certificate from Dunwoody, one semester of credit toward an associate’s degree in machine tool technology, and, if they pass the tests, four professional certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

The manufacturers’ new system of credentialing has turned out to be the tip of the spear in a broader industry push around alternative credentials and the recognition of skills. In the last couple of years, the energy, construction, and transportation sectors have begun following the manufacturers’ lead; all are currently working to develop and offer their own industry-specific credentials with the help of such standards-setting bodies as the American National Standards Institute.

Other industries, such as retail and fast food, have taken a different tack. Instead of coming up with their own credentialing system, they are working to persuade colleges to convert the skills their workers acquire on the job into traditional academic units that they can accumulate to earn a traditional college degree. In this case, the “badge” is college credit.

Not just for Boy Scouts
You too can earn these badges
from Mozilla by learning
and demonstrating Web design skills.

Walmart, for example, announced a new work-for-credits partnership with the online American Public University (APU) in 2010 that provides its employees with college credit for work experience. Roughly 100 different positions qualify for the program, including cashiers, store managers, photo technicians, and inventory supervisors. To get the credit, full-time workers have to be on the job for at least one year, get good performance reviews, and take part in in-house trainings. Karan Powell, APU’s provost, says approximately 5,000 Walmart employees nationwide are now enrolled in the program.

Walmart employee Henry Jordan used this program to earn his bachelor’s degree in management online from APU this past summer. Jordan started out in Walmart’s pet department and rose through the ranks to senior management. His years at Walmart translated into thirty credits at APU, which shaved the equivalent of one full-time year off his course work.

He says this work-for-credit program is the only way he could have gone back to school. “There are lots of people like me who are taking care of families, raising kids, and who have to work,” he said, adding that in his experience many retail workers are learning many of the same skills they would otherwise be learning in college. As a store manager, for example, Jordan said he was essentially running a multimillion-dollar business, with responsibility for personnel, marketing, managing inventory, and environmental and legal compliance, as well as keeping an eye on the books.

APU’s Powell said that figuring out which jobs and skills deserved college credit was a painstaking and complex process that involved mapping the skills learned in a particular job against the objectives of a particular class. “We knew it would get a lot of scrutiny, so we went above and beyond,” Powell said.

This idea of finding new pathways toward higher education isn’t entirely novel. In fact, the National Career Readiness Certificate at the foundation of the manufacturers’ credentialing system is part of the WorkKeys skills assessment system first developed by ACT in 1992. The nontraditional work-for-credit programs, like Walmart’s partnership with APU, were preceded by the nonprofit online Western Governors University, which since 1999 has pioneered the concepts of providing college credit for work skills and focusing on competency versus class time. This involves carefully testing students to see what knowledge and skills they have already picked up in school or at work and then teaching them only the extra information and capacities they’ll need to perform certain professional jobs that Western Governors confers degrees in—human resource management, say, or network administration.

Traditionally, employers have often been reluctant to invest a great deal in training their employees for fear that the investment will be lost if a newly up-skilled employee goes to work for the company’s competitor. But the explosion of industry interest in these nontraditional avenues of training is evidence that to an extent the calculation is changing.

Yes, some employees will seek greener pastures, but offering ways to earn credentials and degrees also turns out to be a great tool for recruiting and retaining the best people, say representatives from both the manufacturing and retail sectors. Industry-approved credentialing programs save companies money by allowing them to cherry-pick people with exactly the skills they need, rather than spending money on recruiting and training people who may not work out. It also helps improve their respective industries’ images if they are perceived as dirty and dangerous, or simply low-skilled.

Peg Walton, senior director for workforce readiness at Corporate Voices for Working Families, says many businesses across the country are clamoring to get college credit for their workers, primarily through partnerships with colleges similar to the one between Walmart and APU. Starbucks, for example, launched Starbucks U, where workers can get college credit from the City University of Seattle for completing such in-house trainings as Barista 100 and Barista Basics. And Jiffy Lube workers can now get credit from the University of Maryland University College for trainings from Jiffy Lube University. UPS and energy giant AREVA have also launched partnerships to convert work skills into college credit.

Whatever the motivations, escalating industry interest in alternative credentials is feeding a larger debate about the very purpose of a college degree—what it should measure and what it should mean. Should colleges produce graduates ready to work? Or should their goal be to produce well-rounded citizens, however that may be defined? Take liberal arts colleges, for example. Liberal arts majors earn an average of $31,000 a year when they first graduate, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, even though their degrees have likely cost at least three times that much. Are those colleges failing their students? Or are they providing value that’s not economically transferable? Is that worth it?

So long as college costs and student debt are spiraling upward, credentialing advocates say the balance should tip toward more pragmatic aims for higher education. “People go to college because they want to work,” Walton of Corporate Voices says simply.

Emily DeRocco, who served in the Department of Labor as the assistant secretary for employment and training under President George W. Bush and is now the principal of the consulting firm E3, agrees. She hopes the push toward skills-based credentials will act as a “wedge” forcing traditional institutions of higher education to consider new ways of thinking about their industry. In particular, she hopes higher education will embrace competency-based education, where what matters is a student’s mastery of specific skills, not the amount of time they spend in class or the alleged prestige of their school. Under a competency-based model, community college graduates could potentially be on equal footing with Harvard MBAs.

Parminder Jassal, the incoming executive director of the ACT Foundation, says competency-based credentials would especially benefit young, low-income, or adult learners, for whom a traditional path to a college degree is impractical.

Jassal points out that much of the K-12 world has already embraced competency-based education—the Common Core State Standards currently being rolled out in most of the nation’s schools are the most obvious example. The Obama administration has also championed the idea.

And, if you think about it, it’s not outside the mold of traditional education, says DeRocco. Much of graduate and professional education, including medicine and law, is already geared toward occupational skills, not general knowledge.

In the meantime, students in traditional higher education settings, like community colleges and four-year universities, are already benefiting from the influence of industry’s push to make higher education more focused on skills. For one thing, more traditional four-year institutions are welcoming tighter partnerships with industry and acknowledging industry’s needs for specific skills in shaping course work.

The Maryland Cybersecurity Center, launched by the University of Maryland at College Park in 2010, boasts partnerships with more than a dozen companies, including Northrop Grumman, SAIC, and Google. A new honors program starting this fall was the product of a $1.1 million investment by Northrop Grumman and comes with a paid internship opportunity for students—an attractive feature. “Parents think cybersecurity is a highly employable field, and if you get an honors degree from this program, you will be über-employable,” said the university’s Eric Chapman.

Jan Klevis, the director of post-secondary and workforce education at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Institute, envisions a “seamless pathway” between work and school that is the ultimate result of the credentialing movement. She imagines working adults having the opportunity to attend school part-time while earning credentials that are not only valuable within an industry but can later be converted into college credit. Under this system, she says, “you can get a four-year degree for under $10,000.”

The prototype of this future student might be forty-six-year-old Joe Weischedel. As a professional truck driver, Weischedel spent two decades hauling everything from produce to chemicals up and down the East Coast and across the country. On his longest hauls, he’s spent as much as four weeks away from home. After stints in community college as well as Temple University in Philadelphia, Weischedel joined the Army for four years and served as a combat medic. Around 2000, he tried college again with a few online classes at the University of Maryland and the University of Phoenix but ended up dropping out.

In 2010, he resumed the college education he had abandoned years earlier and enrolled online at APU. After receiving college credit for the skills he picked up in the military, it took him two years to earn his degree, taking two classes at a time and studying (while sometimes attending classes online) in hotel rooms on the road. This summer, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in transportation and logistics management. He also earned a professional certification from the American Society of Transportation and Logistics.

Today, Weischedel is looking at senior logistics management jobs that could quadruple his current salary driving trucks. “I had the practical experience, but I didn’t have the paper,” he said. “There was a ceiling before, but now I’ve broken through.”

Image credit: Mozilla, Lehigh Career & Technical School

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.