Collecting Badges: A New Way to Get a Leg Up at Work?

When you think of professional development, you might envision going back to school for a master’s degree or Ph.D. While advanced degrees will generally increase your earning power, they’re also very expensive and time consuming. Bloomberg calculates that the average MBA, for example, costs $128,000 — and nearly $250,000 if you factor in wages lost during the two years it takes to complete. That being the case, many people are looking for simpler, quicker ways to gain an edge in the employment market.

One way to differentiate yourself without breaking the bank is by acquiring professional badges from an online university. These badges, or “microcredentials,” can be thought of as stamps of approval, showing you put in a significant amount of coursework to learn a specific new topic. They’re a low-cost way to demonstrate professional development, and the courses are designed to be completed by those who already have a full-time job.

When I first heard about this idea, I was skeptical. I imagined sketchy online institutions administering brightly colored certificates that would never hold any weight in the real world. But, the more I dug into it, the more intrigued I became.

There are quite a few first-rate public and private institutions, such as Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and the University of Wisconsin Extension program, that have been ramping up the number of badges they offer to the public. The idea, according to the dean of the University of Wisconsin Extension, is to “create an alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees.”

People are busy, and technology is reshaping the workplace. In order to keep up, more and more people are turning to online coursework as a way to make sure they have the skills to stay relevant. That would explain the rising popularity of sites such as Udemy, Khan Academy, and Coursera as a way to gain free knowledge online.

It only makes sense for real colleges to enter this market. There’s clearly a desire for a credentialing system that caters to busy professionals who want to gain an edge in a specific arena, but can’t devote years of their lives to an advanced degree and would prefer an affordable online course.

Another encouraging sign is that employers are intrigued by the badge system. A recent survey of human resource managers showed that 62% of HR teams expressed interest in digital badges. “Expressed interest” is a vague term, admittedly. But I take that as a very good sign. HR teams already have a lot on their plate in terms of recruiting and evaluating candidates. The fact that most of them are interested in digital badges shows that they see a future for this budding industry.

How Badges Work

We can look at the example of Wichita State University to get an understanding of what this new badge system is all about. They currently offer 35 online badges in six subject areas: health care, engineering, creative, business, general workforce skills, and behavioral sciences.

The courses are self-directed, and designed to be completed at your own pace. The badges are said to require about 23 hours of combined online instruction and study time, and would be worth the equivalent of half a credit for a degree-seeking student.

I looked into one of their badges for “Advanced MatLab,” and came away impressed with the curriculum. Upon completion of the course, students are required to show proficiency in areas such as “simulating the behavior of dynamic systems” and “designing controllers for multivariable linear systems.” This is clearly not a cakewalk course designed to give people a pat on the back and a fancy-sounding-but-ultimately-hollow certificate of achievement. Someone who earns the badge will have performed real, relevant work, and passed a course taught by high-level educators.

Once you pass the course, you’re able to post your badge on LinkedIn or other social media, email it to prospective employers, or list it on your resume like any other degree or coursework.

In a world where graduate degrees are saturating the market, and the value of an MBA is declining, these microdegrees could represent an efficient, practical way to upgrade your resume in small but hyper-focused ways.

And that focus can matter in today’s increasingly skill-specific job market. Many master’s degrees are broad in nature — having an an MBA doesn’t guarantee that you learned the niche skills a particular employer might want.

A badge, meanwhile, by its very nature, can be highly targeted to a specific subject area, such as the engineering badge that Wichita State offers for “Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing.” I have no idea what that means, but I imagine that if you got that badge, it would be clear to employers in that field which specific skills you’ve mastered.

Summing Up

A microcredential is never going to be seen as more valuable than a top-tier master’s degree. But, that’s not the point. Badges can provide avenues of advancement that don’t involve taking years away from the workforce and spending massive amounts of money.

If you are looking for resources, your best bet is to use a search engine. Since the field is so nascent, and there are so many badges offered, there aren’t yet any well-maintained databases showing everything in one place. Searching for “online college badges,” “digital college badges,” or “online badges for college credit” will reveal a number of institutions offering these services. You can also search for the name of a school with “digital badge” appended to the end of it.

If you’re looking for low-intensity ways to ratchet up your resume, investigating the badge system could be well worth your time.

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Drew Housman


Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.