Student's face between stacks of books in the library stacks

SUNY Micro-credentials Offer Nontraditional Higher-Ed Opportunities


With the ever-evolving and competitive job market, institutions of higher education have been seeking ways to keep up with providing the skills that working professionals need to retain a competitive advantage. One SUNY solution comes in the form of micro-credentials, specialized areas of study that differ from traditional degree and certificate programs in that they can be completed in much shorter time spans. SUNY has identified four main attributes of micro-credentials: (1) they are competency-based, (2) they are endorsed by the issuing institution, (3) they are developed through the local faculty governing processes, and (4) they are meaningful and of high quality.

Buffalo State College approved a policy on micro-credentials (PDF, 30 KB) in May 2020 and currently offers eight micro-credential programs ranging between 6 and 15 credit hours—one at the undergraduate level and seven at the graduate level. Many of the programs are designed for students within the International Graduate Programs for Educators.

“While traditional courses are used in the micro-credentials, instructors are mindful of the need to adjust the pedagogy so that the skills can be grasped by students,” said Associate Provost Amitra Wall, who oversees the development of micro-credentials at Buffalo State. “On the individual level, you would be able to stack those small milestones, while earning a traditional credential would take longer, like a degree or certificate.”

Because the courses are credit-bearing, students can receive credit hours on their transcript in addition to having a specialization to share in the professional world, such as on a résumé or in a portfolio. Non-credit-bearing courses are currently under development for micro-credential specializations, and although they will not fulfill program requirements, the benefits are expected to be advantageous all the same. Kristin Fields, director of the Continuing Professional Studies Office, is working on the development of these programs.

“If you’re just looking to stay on top of skills, or if you’re looking to get something to show that you’re ready to move up to the next level that’s not as involved as a full degree, a micro-credential allows you to refresh those skills.”

- Kristin Fields, M.S., Director of Continuing Professional Studies

“If you’re just looking to stay on top of skills, or if you’re looking to get something to show that you’re ready to move up to the next level that’s not as involved as a full degree, a micro-credential allows you to refresh those skills,” Fields said. “A lot of times that’s just enough for the person to show that they’re staying on top of things within their career.”

Fields also pointed to research suggesting the skills and information most people acquire in college are out of date within three years of their being in the workforce. Micro-credentials as a solution provide proof of relevancy to current and prospective employers for individuals seeking career changes or promotions.

Another benefit of these programs is that they are credentialed, which makes a difference when compared with certificate programs from a source with less reliable accreditation, like a massive open online course, or MOOC, such as Coursera or Udemy, for example. Additionally, Buffalo State’s micro-credentials are developed locally, which means there are opportunities for the curriculum of these specializations to be shaped by the region.

“We have looked at Elmwood’s revival,” Wall said. “There’s a lot of interest in the waterfront, and with Buffalo being so close to Canada, it just amazes me to think of what we can do. In my role as associate provost, I’m hopeful that we can move the conversation to go beyond the use of traditional courses and break out of the box so that we can identify micro-credentials that speak to our community.”

As micro-credentials grow in popularity, news articles and discussions have raised the question: Will these stackable accomplishments replace traditional college degrees and certificates? While Wall acknowledges the path to transformation that higher education is on, she does not see degree programs becoming obsolete—at least not in the near future.

“Do I see micro-credentials replacing traditional four-year degrees? Not anytime soon,” she said. “I do see our society possibly relying on them in terms of individuals thinking that micro-credentials will give them that advantage or the edge. I can see them coupled with four-year degrees.”

Fields added, “I think that’s a very valid question, because we are no longer seeing people who get their degree and stay in that job for the next 30 or 40 years; that’s not who the worker is anymore. Higher ed is really going to have to find a new way to meet the needs of the modern worker and rethink education for the public to prepare them for the next 40 years.”

One incentive for merging micro-credentials with traditional higher education programs is that they provide insight into certain areas of study, letting learners decide whether they want to commit to a degree program. As traditional students and working professionals hunger to enhance their skill sets, micro-credentials serve as the perfect appetizers for the main course—a degree related to their area of interest.

“The beauty of a micro-credential is that it’s low commitment, and it gives you a taste,” Fields said. “So it’s not taking away from the two-year or four-year degrees, but it’s a new doorway into them.”

Photo by Bruce Fox, campus photographer.