Teaching and Learning

Increasing and diversifying enrollment with micro-credentials

Learn how leaders in higher ed are leveraging micro-credentials and digital badges to increase and diversify student enrollment. Inspired by the flexibility of micro-credentials and pathways, leaders in higher ed are developing new ways to offset declining enrollments and increase retention for underserved learners and those at different stages of their lives.

March 8, 2022

Students are opting to sit out a college education at an alarming rate. Worse, the decline in enrollment is nearly double among low-income students for whom college can springboard them into better jobs and higher wages.

Lower college enrollment affects everyone, not just potential students and institutions of higher education. When education levels fall and employers scramble to find skilled employees, the economy suffers. Even more sobering are the costs to society. Lower education is correlated with lower voter turnout, worse health outcomes and higher divorce rates.

Recent data highlights the profound effect of the pandemic on college enrollment, with more than one million fewer students enrolled since 2019. Community colleges have experienced the most significant impact, losing both new and enrolled students who dropped out due to immense pressures caused by the pandemic.

A purple illustration featuring a line sketch of an institution of higher learning depicts a young woman on a badging journey along a green path to success.

According to Doug Shapiro, executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Community colleges remain the most adversely affected sector, experiencing a 14.1% total enrollment decline since fall 2019.”

Data show that students seeking a four-year education are also opting out at a concerning rate. Whether we are seeing a generation of students second-guessing the value of college is not yet known.

In response to these alarming numbers, colleges are devising innovative solutions to increase and diversify enrollment, finding flexible and novel ways to engage students. Some strategies include high-touch efforts to reach students directly, like offering funds to take classes they may have failed due to pressures associated with the pandemic.

Michael Trest, Director of Online Workforce at Jones College in Mississippi, said of their initiatives to increase and diversify enrollment, “Our president is very forward-looking and has seen a lot of different opportunities and places that we’re missing a lot of people. We have a rich history of academic success and workforce career technical, but there are a lot of people that weren’t getting served.”

For the Online Workforce College (OWC), micro-credentials and career pathways became a way to offer scalable, timely and flexible courses and programs to under-served learners.

Says Trest, “Everything we do at Jones College is workforce, whether you’re in academics or career technical. We’re trying to help people get a job and so we started putting micro-credentials into our for-credit classes as well. When students leave, not only do they have rich academics or skills through career technical, but they also have competency and skills credentials to go along with them.”

For Bakersfield College in California, improving student program completions was a mission that predated the pandemic. After identifying groups of students who were not getting to the completion line quickly, it became clear to Bakersfield’s leadership that they needed to rethink how to organize the curriculum.

A colorful illustration shows four people at different places in their learning journey.

California Community Colleges, a consortium of colleges to which Bakersfield belongs, co-developed a catalog visualization tool with Concentric Sky that enables students to see what their learning journey might look like from term to term, including for students who might want to transfer from two-year to four-year institutions within the system.

Using this pathways tool, students can see not only interest clusters, they can also see the learning outcomes and the expected employment outcomes by credentials earned.

Early research is encouraging for these pathways. After implementation, Bakersfield saw a statistically significant increase of 20% for “on-path” student rates. Most importantly, outcomes across all demographic groups were far more equitable than what they had been previously. Rather than an 8% to 10% difference between demographic groups, they were within 1% or 2% of each other.

Skills-aligned micro-credentials are being embedded into these pathways, building on the potential for pathways to increase and diversify student engagement. Being able to visualize the learning and being able to earn micro-credentials along the way is having a positive impact on student completion rates.

Pam Rivers, Assistant Director of Academic Technology and Professional Development at Bakersfield College relayed encouraging feedback from faculty who are implementing micro-credentials in their pathways.

“Students are more interested and excited to finish the modules where the badges are attached. They seem to like earning badges for the work they’re doing. For example, in our child development program where there are multiple badges – that’s where our students get excited. They know that if they finish this, and get the grades, then they get a badge at the end of it.”

Bill Moseley, Bakersfield’s interim Vice President of Innovation and Development, has no illusions about the amount of work required to implement these programs. “From an institutional perspective, implementing badges requires a lot of institutional thinking and strategy. If we want more colleges out there implementing badges, we have to start thinking about how we can make it work at scale.”

As colleges continue to build new micro-credentialing programs and report what they’re learning about the connection between pathways and more equitable outcomes, our shared understanding will grow.

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Join us at Badgr to have illuminating conversations with thought leaders about their strategies to increase and diversify enrollment with micro-credentials and pathways in a time of great change and uncertainty. We look forward to expanding this conversation to include you and others on this same path.

Dr. Sheryl Grant, a woman with her hair pulled back, looks at the camera. She wears earrings and eyeglasses with rectangular frames.

About the author

Sheryl Grant, Ph.D. is Director of Digital Credentialing Strategies at Badgr where she is responsible for the research, design and delivery of strategic planning and offers expertise in support of complex, multi-year digital credentialing programs.

Dr. Grant is among the change agents who helped build the field of micro-credentials, spearheading the Open Badges movement 12 years ago with Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC. She has published articles, blogs, book chapters and the book What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities, an early response to designing badge systems grounded in actual practice.

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