On a recent webinar, respected higher education practitioners, policymakers and researchers discussed and debated the future of higher education. As is so often the case in such discussions, the speakers presented the issue as a choice, pitting shorter-term, industry-recognized credentials against longer-term bachelor’s degrees.  But why should learners have to choose between the two?  Why can’t it be “both/and,” not “either/or”?

The issue has special urgency now, given the upheaval to our nation’s economy and the ensuing devastating job loss of 45 million and counting forcing many Americans to prepare themselves for a new job or career. Strada Education Network found that “one in three Americans…would change careers if they lost their jobs.” The same survey revealed that job seekers are looking for a quick fix, short term training programs so they can upskill or reskill to enter a new position and/or industry. 

We are all aware of study after study demonstrating the “significant long-term economic benefits of a college degree”. And yet, so many learners lack the time and resources to invest in that degree right now. Certainly there are challenges with short-term credentials from the perspective of a learner. They are often offered as a non-credit program, providing no linkage to the next step or acceptance for credits as a part of a college degree. And, they frequently stand alone. Credential holders are unaware of how to parlay the credential and their skills and experience to a next step…how to build on the credential, add to their skills and build toward both educational and career pathways and economic upward mobility.

The jury may still be out on the long-term benefits of short-term credentials, but the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor have just released funding opportunities to support the development of such programs and measure their success. These funds should be used to build credentialing programs that are explicitly part of longer-term degree programs. 

We would argue there are effective ways to build these credentials so they are intentionally created as a part of a broader educational pathway–puzzle pieces that can be fit together toward a degree. To do so, instructional and curriculum designers need to start with the end in mind. What is the occupational target of the credential? Where does that occupation fit within a broader career trajectory? What signals of competency does an employer need in order to hire into that position? What skills and credentials does a worker need to advance? On the academic side, what data will a college need to ensure the short-term credential fits into a larger degree? How can the credential be embedded into the larger degree? How can the credential and degree be devised with multiple entry and exit points to facilitate a learner’s ability to upskill and add credentials at a pace that works for them?

We recognize there isn’t an easy solution. It will require partnership among colleges, regulators, workforce professionals and employers to make it happen. Our economy will look different as our nation emerges from the pandemic-induced recession. Workers and learners will need clearly articulated options for reskilling and upskilling so they can reenter the workforce able to perform, and those options should offer a seamless progression to allow for both educational and career advancement. Our country needs creative solutions and commitment from our higher education, workforce and business leaders now to upskill and reskill our workforce…the health of our economy depends on it.