The future is logging in: Online credentials are here to stay

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we learn. We’re seeing that play out in schools now, as the fall semester gets underway. But the pandemic has also impacted the pursuit of other credentials, such as licenses and certifications. 

With unemployment at record levels, many workers are using this time to beef up their skills. Meanwhile, universities have shuttered most in-person instruction, leveling the playing field for online learning. And, just as for-profit colleges have experienced an uptick in recent months, virtual training programs have seen rising enrollment, too.

All those signs point to a new reality — one in which online credentialing programs are here to stay. 

What are credentialing programs?

Credentialing programs are generally considered an alternative to traditional degree and diploma-based programs. Use cases run the gamut, from skill assessments to training, continuing education to licensing exams. More than 1 in 4 American adults hold a non-degree credential and have greater earning potential as a result, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Because the nature of credentialing programs varies from field to field, they are typically hosted by an industry-specific body, such as a board, commission, trade association or a governmental agency. Colleges and universities often carry supplemental programs, as well. 

Once earned, these credentials are a signifier of competency in the marketplace. For instance, a real estate broker may carry a license that demonstrates knowledge of state and local regulations, which can go a long way toward attracting clients. 

In other cases, these credentials can be used to keep up with changes in a field, such as new technology. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of new career paths, such as contact tracer and blockchain architect. To meet growing demand, companies and organizations are specifically developing credential programs to backfill those skills

In the workplace, these credentials help showcase an employee’s commitment to staying apprised of the latest industry trends. For participants, the programs are a convenient way to continue their professional development on their own at a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree.  

What are the benefits of online credential programs? 

Traditional, in-person credential programs have long had limitations. For instance, there are only so many people who can travel to class at a given time, and a classroom can only hold so many students. This ultimately leads to a cap on the number of courses offered and the number of credentials that can be awarded. And, historically, many organizations and certifying bodies have conducted their programs on a seasonal or annual basis to accommodate the busy schedules of students and staff. 

Online credential programs, however, can expand considerably. Participants can enroll any time from all around the world, which opens up a valuable revenue stream for credentialing organizations, as well as for companies looking to reap the rewards of an upskilled workforce. 

What does the future hold? 

For those who want to further their education, there is no shortage of credential programs to choose from. As of 2019, there were more than 700,000 credential offerings, according to the nonprofit organization Credential Engine.

The true value lies in the hiring process. A survey conducted by Northeastern University in late 2018 found that 48% of HR leaders valued educational credentials more than they did five years prior. In many cases, credentialing can be a helpful way for staffing agencies to pre-vet candidates and validate skills, while minimizing placement costs.   

The pandemic economy has a part to play, as well. Previously, employment had become a buyer’s market in the U.S., that reality is shifting fast in favor of employers, and candidates will need to bring more to the table to compete for roles and win. In addition, the pace of innovation and digitization will result in the need for heightened technological skills. Look for this trend to continue as institutions modify their fall offerings. We’re all learning how to learn in this new environment.