Study shows “weak” evidence of ROI for alternative credentials

A new study shows that while alternative credentials and pathways typically take less time, are more flexible and more aligned with the demands of the labor market than traditional degree programs, their actual efficacy and ROI is “weak”.

Alternative pathways and credentials have proliferated over the past 15 years, however, new research shows that evidence of their actual efficacy and return on investment (ROI) to students is “weak”. 

The new study developed by Ithaka S+R for the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, examines the growing field of alternative pathways and credentials, like MOOCs, online micro-credentials, and other training and certificate programs that don’t lead to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The study “The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways” identifies five primary categories of alternative forms of postsecondary education: 

1. Certificate programs
2. Work-based training
3. Skills-based short courses
4. Massive open online courses (MOOCs)
5. Competency-based education programs

Authors Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil found that while alternative credentials and pathways typically take less time, are more flexible and more aligned with the demands of the labor market than traditional degree programs, the earnings of certificate holders vary widely by field. 

In a time when universities are already incorporating features of these alternative pathways to their curriculum, the report urges higher education stakeholders to review the return on investment of existing programs. 

The report concludes with some recommendations for policy-makers, funders, and the higher education community:

  • Invest in a more comprehensive data system that captures student-record data on students’ experiences across the full array of postsecondary pathways, as well as information about providers and their programs and credentials. 
  • Adjust quality assurance processes to allow for accurate and comparable evaluation of alternative programs.
  • Support rigorous research on the efficacy and return on investment of existing and emerging alternative pathways and the value of alternative credentials.

The report "The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways" is available on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences website