College Degrees vs. Micro-credentials — What’s Worth the ROI?

Which is better: Earning a college degree or earning one or more micro-credentials? Well, it depends. 
For those who are seeking education and skills primarily for current or future job opportunities — which is typical among first-year college students when they begin their journeys — either pathway could offer meaningful employment or promotions opportunities. And, both have advantages and disadvantages. 
The Case for College Degrees 
For example, earning a bachelor’s degree (we will focus on this type of degree) is often expensive with a deep time commitment — at least four years in most instances, and might not provide the exact skills needed to achieve the job opportunities desired. In fact, even students who complete bachelor’s degrees in four years may very well end up graduating with skills that are no longer aligned with the skills needed upon graduation, and at a significant cost. 
Conversely, if gaining information and knowledge through formal education is the primary reason for attending college, and expanding job opportunities is of secondary importance, it is difficult to find a better choice than earning a college degree in an on-campus environment from one of the more than 4,000 accredited colleges in the United States, and the cost and time commitment for these types of students is nearly always well worth it. 
Despite a slight downward trend in college enrollment at the undergraduate- and associate-degree levels over the past decade, there has also been a slight increase in those enrolling in graduate-degree programs. Many still look forward to attending college, along with the many unique experiences one can expect on a college campus. 
The Case for Micro-credentials 
The micro-credentialing space is evolving and, overall, is still in its infancy. In fact, there is not currently an industrywide standard or clear definition of a “micro-credential.” One definition that seems reasonably descriptive for a micro-credential is “a program that offers bite-sized qualifications that demonstrate knowledge/skills in a specific area or capability.” 
In the United States alone, it is estimated there are more than one million micro-credentialing programs available, with sparse data available in which to validate the fundamental utility of many of these programs. Generally, the attainment of a micro-credential is considered fast, accessible, and specialized, especially when compared with the four or more years needed to earn a bachelor’s degree. 
Micro-credentialing programs are valuable options to upskill existing skills, or to develop some basic skills in a specialized area, quickly and inexpensively. Micro-credential programs, which can last from one week to more than a year in length, commonly offer digital badges along with credentials to certify the completion of the curriculum. 
Don’t Forget Certificate Programs 
There are also certificate programs (possibly called “core-certification programs”) and not necessarily micro-credentials that have been around for some time and have been validated through empirical data.  Examples of these programs might include certified network administrators, project management professionals, certified payroll professionals, employee specialists, Six Sigma, certified executive coaches, and many others. These programs are often found in junior or community colleges, although there are many entities offering these types of certification programs. 
Of course, there are certain occupations that require a college degree and additional educational credentials or certifications. Consider someone who desires to be a medical doctor, or an attorney, or an accountant who might need a certification to practice their trade, and many in the engineering space have multiple layers of certifications post-graduation, as do other occupations. 
College Degrees vs. Micro-credentials 
Back to the original question — Which is better: earning a college degree, micro-credentials, or to add another option, perhaps a core certification in a more traditional area? 
The cost of attending college is a significant expense and most find the option cost prohibitive. Those who do enroll can often leave the student, parents, or both with long-term repayment obligations for the loans they have acquired that may last longer than a decade. In fact, student loan debt and the role government should fill in that arena, has recently become (and remains) a current political hot topic with no easy answers (see: the federal student-loan interest pause, which ends this week, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on broad student-loan forgiveness). 
And, while the cost of micro-credentials program is much, much less expensive, and takes a fraction of time to achieve when comparing with the cost and time commitment of a college degree, the simple fact remains that these two options exist for different reasons and offer different levels of benefits to the recipient. Neither can replace the other, and, unlike college degrees, many organizations are still not quite sure how to place value on a given micro-credential. 
The Costs of College Degrees and Micro-credentials 
Let’s face it: Everyone who would like to earn a college degree is not necessarily going to attend college for a wide variety of reasons, and even for those who are fortunate to attend, all do not graduate. And even those who do graduate might not achieve the desired employment opportunities they originally thought were possible when they made the decision to earn a college degree. 
In many cases, when employment and/or lifetime earnings are a major focus for an individual, the ideal outcome is to earn both a degree and related credentials, micro or otherwise, in a person’s occupational field, to help ensure they remain “employee competitive.” This approach, when possible, will also help such a person remain reasonably marketable for future opportunities. 
Still, when this ideal approach is not practical (which is most common), earning a certification from an established college or university in a core program can be a great alternative compared with earning a college degree, and micro-credentialing is an excellent approach toward gaining skills and experience in a specific area in an efficient way. 
Final Considerations 
If one’s goals are to acquire knowledge, learning, and perhaps experience the benefits of an on-campus college, one should do everything possible to attend the best-ranked college where they can get accepted, and that they can afford. 
If one’s goals are to acquire specific skills and/or experience, in preparation for job opportunities or advancement, then it’s best to find a micro-credential program from a respected entity, such as a well-known college or university, since they offer deep experience in quality teaching, typically with measurable outcomes, and offer brand recognition. 
There is value in earning a credential from a respected university, and plenty of them exist. When one cannot afford the time and/or expense of earning a college degree, a certificate program focused on the desired field can be an acceptable alternative, while avoiding the mountain of debt that can occur in order to attend a college-degree program.