Six Types of Credentials Non-Traditional Students Want

This is original content from Modern Campus.

“We are at the beginning of what I would call a golden age for lifelong learning and “non-credit” or informal professional learning. However, this market has become substantially more competitive and commoditized. Colleges and universities no longer have a monopoly on being the preferred content creator and distributor and credentialer.”

– Sean Gallagher | Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, Northeastern University

Credentials used to be simple. Students would enroll in a college or university right out of high school, complete their degree and then go on to join the workforce never to return.

Higher education needs to shift away from this notion of linear learning. Leading institutions need to look at learners from a different lens. Instead of traditional-aged students flocking to classrooms, more and more students today are non-traditional learners—they’re adults who are employed and study part-time. In fact, 41 percent of U.S. students enrolled at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2015 were 25 years of age or older, and this cohort is expected to continue growing through to 2026. These non-traditional learners bring different expectations to their institution. Instead of merely learning for learning’s sake, non-traditional learners seek out credentials in order to increase their employability in the workforce. Traditional credentials are no longer sufficient for them.

So, what can institutions do to attract and retain this new breed of non-traditional learners with such specialized expectations?

Instead of offering a single product in the form of a degree, leading institutions must begin reshaping their credentials around the outcomes or competencies needed by the labor market. Instead of focusing on what has traditionally been done or what faculty want to teach, institutions must look to curriculum and delivery formats that fulfill the expectations of non-traditional learners.

The following list provides six types of credentials institutions can provide that non-traditional learners really want.


Degrees—associate’s, bachelor’s and beyond—have long been higher education’s primary focus. Degree programs that attract non-traditional learners are ones that intrinsically understand the needs of today’s labor market. Institutions looking to get ahead in this market must develop robust, relevant degree programs that provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. Degrees are likely to remain popular with employers, providing they help students develop workforce-relevant skills. In fact, in order for the American workforce to remain competitive internationally, 55 percent of Americans must earn a degree by 2025. The growth of non-traditional learners in degree programs has also forced institutions to rethink course delivery methods to better align with the schedule of this new cohort of students. Online options and evening/weekend classes are popular formats that meet the needs of non-traditional learners. Adult students have numerous options when seeking out higher education providers. Market-ready institutions must customize their degrees and ensure that degrees are relevant and competitive so that job seekers and employers alike will continue to place high value on them.

“College degrees are the currency of the higher ed market, and alternative credentials must find a way to work within that system, because there is no imminent collapse that would devalue that currency.”

– Richard DeMillo | Director, Center for 21st Century Universities, Georgia Institute of Technology


Degrees have traditionally been touted as the way forward to greater personal prosperity. Yet, for a variety of reasons, they are often inaccessible for non-traditional learners. This opens pathways to alternative forms of credentials such as certificates. Certificate programs—some designed as an alternative to a degree and others designed as a specialized addition after completing a degree program—can provide a valuable revenue stream to institutions. Shorter in length and cheaper in cost than degree programs, certificates provide students with specialized, workplace-ready skills and deliver a high return on investment. This also means that learners can continuously enroll in a variety of certificate programs over time and increase the value of their own credentials. Institutions looking to gain headway in this market should develop programming that supports the unique and specific expectations of employers. They also need to think about how the certificate will be packaged—will students be able to enroll in all courses at once, bundled together in a neat package, or will an individual course-by-course format work better?

“By building a robust online education platform that allows students to go beyond purely credit-bearing offerings—creating access to professional development certificates and more—universities can create an environment designed around the needs of the modern working professional.” 

– Glynn Cavin | Director of Online and Continuing Education, Auburn University 
– Robert Jackson | Professor of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Auburn University 

Stackable Credentials

Non-traditional students can be lifelong learners at an institution if their college or university provides them with an opportunity to balance their short-term and long-term goals. Stackable credentials allow learners to enroll in several credentials consecutively, building their skill sets as they go. For instance, while a non-traditional learner may require the immediate skills that a certificate can provide, in the future they may look to complete their bachelor’s degree at the same institution by building on the credits they’ve already earned. This provides a huge amount of enrollment potential for leading higher education institutions. Higher education providers should therefore ensure that this stackable process is easy to navigate and that programming is stimulating and encourages further learning.

“The benefit of certificates that stack into degrees is that shorter programs may appeal to students who need or want to work while learning. They also create clear pathways with incremental goals, allow for more agility in curriculum design and delivery, and support a more open-loop lifelong approach to education.”

– Joann Kozyrev | Vice President of Design and Development, Western Governors University

Prior Learning Assessment

Non-traditional learners often bring significant experience outside of academia to their programs. Many have also completed some college courses, but have not received a credential. Most non-traditional learners enroll in a program with the intention of obtaining a credential quickly in order to further their opportunities in the workforce. Therefore, institutions that recognize their prior learning experiences will be more successful in recruiting this body of students. Institutions should move towards recognizing varying forms of credit and non- credit experiences so that non-traditional learners avoid taking unnecessary classes. Prior Learning Assessment can increase retention rates at institutions, and today’s leading colleges and universities should look to revise their policies to recognize the changing needs of their students.

“Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) provides adult learners with the means to potentially earn credit for work and life experience. Prior learning programs not only provide students with an alternative option for credit beyond taking courses, but also validate and recognize the non-traditional learning (knowledge, skills and experience) that adult learners bring with them to college.” 

– Tracy A. Costello | Assistant Director of Prior Learning & Joseph D. Levy | Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation, National Louis University

Competency-Based Learning

Competency-Based Learning has become popular in recent years, after debates over seat time and the credit hour have been thrust into the spotlight. Non-traditional learners look at competency-based learning as a way to learn at a pace that works for them, allowing them to achieve their goals and enter or advance in the workforce with this newfound knowledge acquired in the classroom. Institutions should recognize the paradigm shifts taking place in higher education today and look to competency-based learning as an opportunity to attract and retain more non-traditional learners.

“Competency-based Education (CBE) is innovative because it is truly student-focused. The model measures individual progress by what a student knows and can do, rather than by credit hours. It recognizes knowledge gained via outside sources, including alternative pathways or on-the-job experience. That makes CBE ideal for adult learners.”

– Jean Floten | Former Chancellor, Western Governors University Washington

Professional Certifications

Many industries have begun to look at their employees’ credentials and rethink what skill sets are needed to help a company succeed. More and more, employers are demanding that their workforce have upgraded qualifications and specialized skills that meet national and sometimes international standards. Professional certifications—especially popular in the Project Management, IT and Sales fields—fill this niche market. For many non-traditional learners, holding a professional certification is a stepping stone to new positions, promotions or salary raises. For some, a job offer will be conditional based on whether they hold the designated certificate or not. Institutions can gain a competitive edge by offering in-demand professional certification programs, but they must be responsive and agile if they hope to capitalize on this market.

“Reputable certificate programs are generally developed in tandem with businesses, government agencies and professional associations. This approach helps ensure that coursework is closely aligned with ever-evolving industry standards, skills and technologies—a real benefit for employees, as well as their employers.”

Susan Aldridge | President of Drexel University Online, Drexel University

The Future of Credentials

It comes as no surprise that the demand for credentials is increasing. Credentials offer a much faster way to an individual to acquire new competencies and validate it to their employer. From the perspective of employers, credentials provide an attractive way to ensure a steady supply skilled workforce that is equipped to meet the present-day workforce demands.

Laurel Ridge and Laurel Ridge Workforce Solutions offer all of these credentials through programs within our community-based learning opportunities. Additionally, we have many funding opportunities as well as registration incentives through our FastForward Refer-a-Friend program.