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Non-degree ‘badges’ are booming. Are they really useful?

When graduate student Atis Degro got an email about a George Mason University course in resilience last year, he had to look up what the word meant.

He was also curious about the credential being offered for successfully completing the course: not a conventional degree or a certificate, but a “badge.”

“I thought, okay, this sounds useful,” said Degro, a 32-year-old doctoral student from Latvia studying applied physics. “I’m always eager to try new things.”

So Degro took the course and earned the badge, which turned out to be a way to list his new skill in an online resume with a digital graphic that looks like an emoji.

Such non-degree credentials have been growing in popularity. But as students invest more time and money in them, concerns grow about credentials’ quality control and value.

While there has generally been consensus about what a college degree represents, there’s confusion over how to define many of these new credentials and judge their usefulness for employers and job seekers.

“We do have a little bit of a Wild West situation right now with alternative credentials,” said Alana Dunagan, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit Clayton Christensen Institute, which researches education innovation. The U.S. higher education system “doesn’t do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.”

READ MORE: New research questions the value of certificates pushed by colleges, policymakers

Thousands of credentials classes aimed at improving specific skills have cropped up outside of traditional colleges. Some classes are boot camps, including those popular with computer coders. Others are even more narrowly focused, such as courses on factory automation and breastfeeding. Colleges and universities have responded by adding non-degree programs of their own.

There’s not yet a reliable count of how many programs like these exist. One kind of popular non-degree credential, the certificate, is tracked, and the number conferred by colleges and universities grew by 31 percent in the 10 years ending in 2015-16 — the last period for which the figure is available — to 939,243, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

In addition, some 4,000 colleges and other providers issue industry certifications, according to the Lumina Foundation, but fewer than one in 10 are reviewed by a regulatory body or accreditor.

Bad communication has created a sort of “tower of Babel,” in which employers can’t interpret what a new credential means, said Kathleen deLaski, president and founder of the Education Design Lab, which has been working with colleges and other organizations on classes that reward students for the skills they learn. Companies need to be more active in designing these skills courses from the outset, deLaski said.

“We have not seen industry step up and say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” she said. “It’s got to come from the employer side.”

That companies need trained employees is uncontested: More than three-quarters of U.S. manufacturers told the National Association of Manufacturers this year that they had trouble finding and keeping skilled workers.

Despite those hiring and retention concerns, industry appears reluctant to discuss the topic of policing new credentials. The National Association of Manufacturers declined to answer questions, as did tractor maker Caterpillar, which once had an in-house training program called Caterpillar University, and Amazon Web Services, which has teamed up with 19 Southern California colleges to train students in cloud computing.

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Like Caterpillar, other big companies have cut back on employee training, boosting the need for third-party courses. Snap-on, the toolmaker, trains its employees on its own machines, but said in a written statement that it “supports a common framework for credentials” to ensure quality.

In northwestern New York State, several colleges have started looking into how to offer training that large manufacturers in the region once provided, said Heather Gresham, executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Investment Board.

“Training and development are often the first place employers are forced to cut,” she said. “There are a lot of conversations about what we can do to develop the workforce.”

Not all the new courses are aimed at increasing clearly defined skills in manufacturing or computing. Employers report trouble finding job candidates who can communicate well and work in teams, which is among the reasons George Mason University administrators say they started the resilience badge class in 2015.

Students can choose to take the five-week course — three weeks in the classroom and two online — to improve their ability to face adversity and work with others, said Lewis Forrest, George Mason’s associate dean for university life. Forrest noted the disconnect between what students generally learn in college and what employers need, and said the badge could help with that — but only if employers understand what it means when they see it on a job candidate’s resume.

“I still think there’s a way to go for employers to see it as something useful,” Forrest said. “I don’t think employers are at the point where they see badges as the trigger for hiring.”

Among the stumbling blocks for badges and other new credentials, also called microcredentials, is how to help employers judge whether a course has actually taught candidates a useful skill.

The rush to create new credentials is likely to lead to a flood of useless courses, said Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine, a nonprofit working to compile a database of every educational credential in the country. (Credential Engine is supported by the Lumina Foundation, which also funds the Hechinger Report.)

“Everybody is scrambling to create microcredentials or badges,” Cheney said. “This has never been a precise marketplace, and we’re just speeding up that imprecision.”

Arizona State University, for example, is rapidly increasing the number of online courses in its continuing and professional education division, which confers both badges and certificates. According to staff, the division offers 200 courses and programs in a slew of categories, including art, history, education, health and law, and plans to provide more than 500 by next year.

The university has avoided quality concerns by asking the same faculty responsible for its degree programs to design the new skills courses, said Darcy Richardson, who directs the program.

Companies and educators need to work together to come up with a way to protect consumers, she said.

“If an organization wants to grant a badge, there’s nothing stopping them from doing that,” Richardson said. “It’s important for consumers to do their due diligence.”

This story about new kinds of college credentials was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for the Hechinger newsletter.

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