Don’t Stack New Credentials, Staple Them

Although my sons have grown up in L.A., their first visit to Disneyland was just last year. There were two reasons for the delay: (1) scared as a mouse of massive crowds and hour-long lines; (2) I convinced myself Disneyland was too fancy – Leo, Hal, and Zev should grow up with more modest theme park experiences. Both orders were amply filled by nearby Knott’s Berry Farm. Knott’s is Southern California’s original theme park, built around a popular Depression-era chicken dinner restaurant. Walter Knott was a farmer with a penchant for innovation – he invented the boysenberry (named after his buddy Rudolph Boysen) – and assembled an Old West-themed amusement park around the restaurant so visitors would have something to do while they waited in line for Mrs. Knott’s fried chicken. When Walter invited his friend Walt Disney to visit, Walt was impressed with how guests interacted with a mannequin in a ghost town jail cell (Sad-Eye Joe); Knott’s inspired numerous Disneyland attractions. Today, Knott’s is a charming, rundown relic: a theme park in the middle of a residential neighborhood; people literally live across the street from the Timber Mountain Log Ride.

A few years ago, while in (a short) line for that epic flume, Leo had an epiphany. With our season pass (then $94 – you see what I mean about modest) we could visit Knott’s every day of the year. And for $111, we could add a season dining pass, providing two full meals a day. So – including the full cost of the season pass – we could have our fill of burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, fried dough, and plenty of food on a stick (everything tastes better on a stick) for about 50 cents a day. As a result, pondered Leo, why isn’t the solution to world hunger to simply buy everyone a season dining pass to Knott’s Berry Farm?

As between world hunger and postsecondary education, a season pass may be a likelier solution to the former. In the past two years, 1.3M students have opted out of college’s all-you-can-eat approach. In rejecting the college bundle, they must be pursuing new faster + cheaper skills-based credentials, right? Wrong. Although Credential Engine counts over 550K alternative credentials, we’re not seeing the enrollment shift from degrees to alternatives that many – myself included – predicted. Course Report hasn’t updated its coding bootcamp market size estimate since April 2020 when 25K students were projected to graduate. And the stock prices of Coursera and edX parent 2U (down 57% and 66% YTD respectively) show investors aren’t seeing a silver lining in degree decline.

A year after I published A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, my friend Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, profiled a promising faster + cheaper entry-level tech credential. Established by the nonprofit Greater Washington Partnership, the Capital CoLAB certificate was backed by a coalition of 12 DC-area universities and 11 companies like Northrop Grumman, Capital One, and JPMorgan Chase. Universities would teach defined tech skills as they saw fit. Companies promised certificate earners would have a leg up in the hiring process. Capital CoLAB aimed to award 45,000 certificates by 2025.

CoLAB’s generalist tech credential was soon joined by entry-level credentials in cybersecurity, data analytics, and machine learning. Twelve universities swelled to 19 and the number of employers grew to 20. But if you’re thinking winner winner chicken dinner, think again. Unlike your typical hit-and-run journalist, Goldie recently returned to the scene of the crime and found that after more than three years, Capital CoLAB had awarded fewer than 600 certificates. The organization has hired McKinsey to advise on strategic direction – a sign that Capital CoLAB might be Calbright East.

Why haven’t new faster + cheaper credentials taken off? The strong labor market hasn’t helped. But even if we didn't have 11.2M open jobs, it’s highly unlikely hundreds of thousands of Americans would seek to launch careers via novel programs and credentials. I also don’t think much would change with short-term Pell.

CoLAB is an instructive case study. Despite various and sundry promises, employers did next to nothing. According to the President of University of Maryland College Park, “key employers have not sought out these skills/credentials for making employment decisions in the region.” Goldie chalks it up to “early enthusiasm expressed by chief executives and… HR managers… [not] sustained or communicated through the ranks.” I chalk it up to the corporate version of life getting in the way.

Six years ago the Wall Street Journal recognized digital credentials “don’t carry much weight in hiring yet… because managers don’t trust or recognize many of the companies and organizations behind the badges and courses.” That remains true today. As companies are busy places and managers are busy people, gaining acceptance for a new program or credential is hard. Only a handful of new tech credentials are recognized and valued by hiring managers, primarily those issued by vendors like AWS, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Cisco. Employers know who they are because they purchase their products. But when a new issuer like CoLAB appears, hiring managers can’t be bothered to make heads or tails of it. After all, hundreds of other applicants tout comprehensible credentials.

Another problem is that new credentials – skills-based though they may be – are no substitute for relevant work experience, particularly in tech. There are many ways to become a Trailhead-certified Salesforce administrator, but not many employers are looking for a newly minted Salesforce admin with no relevant work experience. As Kwame Yangame, CEO of Qwasar Silicon Valley, noted, “if you scan the job requirements for any active tech job, the words “skills,” “experience,” and “proven ability” are constantly repeated across postings.” A 2018 survey found that 61% of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees require at least three years of experience. A LinkedIn study of jobs posted from 2018-2021 found 35% of entry-level positions requested years of prior experience (but for “software” jobs, it was 60%). Staffing firm Robert Half surveyed hiring managers and asked which factors are most important in evaluating entry-level candidates for tech jobs. The #1 answer: most current work experience. For a depressingly large number of good entry-level jobs, you need to show you’ve pretty much done the job, which pretty much puts the mockers on America’s trillion dollar “train and pray” enterprise.


While most colleges and universities have blissfully ignored the blizzard of new credentials, a small number seek to stack them. Higher education orthodoxy is that faster + cheaper newbies are only worth offering if they stack towards degrees. But by developing de novo college certificates in place of existing certifications with some level of recognition, colleges amplify the primary weakness of new credentials.

I don't mean to attack stacking done properly (Stack Attack!), but rather than the muddled stacking we’re currently seeing, it would be more productive to simply staple new credentials to something solid.

What can new credentials be stapled to? I see two stapleable options:

1) Staple to Degrees
Enrollment-challenged colleges would do well to make a list of new in-demand industry-recognized credentials and promise students they’ll graduate with at least one (particularly if they’re relegated to a chancy major – see below). Then either integrate these credentials into degree programs or modify distributional requirements to mandate additional credentials. Either way, be sure to start these credentials in the first year (turning degree programs upside down).

The risk to degree-stapling is degree melt. With each passing year, more prospective students are thinking that if they’re going to invest time, money, and debt in a degree, it ought to be either in a program or major that has a strong track record of producing superior economic outcomes for graduates – think engineering, computer science, or medicine – or at a top brand, which connotes prestige and alumni network. Although there are a handful of exceptions, this trend leaves about 90% of programs and 95% of universities out in the cold (or rather in the melt). And the current bait-and-switch situation where students matriculate at a public university hoping for a major that comes close to guaranteeing strong economic outcomes, only to be told they haven’t met GPA or other requirements, is untenable.

The melt is likely to accelerate. Soft CoLAB breezes of three years past have blown into a squall of degree minimization or rejection at large employers like Amazon, Accenture, and HP. At IBM, only 29% of tech jobs now require a degree. And while the message will take time to filter down to HR and hiring managers, increases in frequency and amplitude will have an effect (see e.g., launch of last week’s new AdCouncil campaign with Opportunity@Work and a host of Fortune 500 bigwigs committing to Tear The Paper Ceiling, the invisible barrier facing Americans without degrees).

2) Staple to Jobs
After years of applying to jobs and receiving no feedback because filtered out by keyword-based applicant tracking systems, career launchers don’t trust employers. Which helps explain why vague company promises about CoLAB credentials failed to attract thousands of students. Even new blue chip credentials face the same dynamic; when Salesforce rolls out 25 new partner employers (including Accenture, Deloitte, KPMG, Liberty Mutual Insurance), for its Pathfinder training program, job seekers take it with a grain of salt.

What does it take to convince skeptical students? Something along the lines of what Medical Sales College (MSC) has done. MSC is a bootcamp that trains sales representatives for the medical device sector (technical selling to doctors). While colleges have graduates navigate the job market alone, sending them out into the wilds of Handshake – you know where else you find those same employers and jobs? The Internet – MSC launched its own recruiting platform for the industry called Zero Fee Recruiting. Over 3,000 hiring managers actively search the platform every month for MSC graduates, including over 100 at the largest medical device companies. For students, by far the most important factor in the enrollment process is seeing employer activity on Zero Fee with their own eyes – most of them end up enrolling. But you don’t see too many providers of new credentials with something like this.

Stapling to jobs works best when hiring happens first, solving the work experience conundrum. That’s apprenticeship with related technical instruction (RTI) resulting in a recognizable credential. (And the ApprenticeshipUSA logos belatedly released last month by the Department of Labor don’t count.) But you also don’t see too many providers of new credentials looking to launch apprenticeship programs or become apprenticeship intermediaries.


Demand for new credentials is different for working professionals already in good jobs. If you’re already on a career path, you have the luxury of time, and probably employer funding. So you can take a flier on a novel credential or two. This corporate training market remains the driver of new credentials (although apparently not fast enough for Coursera and 2U investors).

But those of us who predicted that faster + cheaper (and mostly digital) credentials would supplant degrees for career launchers must recognize that, so far, demand is way off. Although students can radically reduce cost and debt by piecing together new credentials, making sense of this alphabet soup is too much brain damage for all but motivated nerds who are en route to good tech jobs anyway. Think of it this way: students graduate from high school having made few (if any) material choices about their educational pathway; few are ready to immediately chart their own course in an ocean-size bowl of alphabet soup.

For new credentials to reach the mainstream and provide a much needed boost to socioeconomic mobility – to help millions of underemployed and unhappily employed Americans launch successful careers, and to serve as viable competition to keep colleges (more) honest – they need to be stapled to a known quantity, at least for now. That could mean a degree. But it probably means a job. It needs to be one or the other, because few are going to be fooled into paying for a credential they’ve never heard of. Not even those who buy the heart-attack-in-waiting that’s the Knott’s Berry Farm season dining pass.