Emerging Growth of Non-Accredited Providers: Q&A with Dr. Gallagher

Last updated on: January 20, 2022

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Dr. Sean Gallagher is the Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. This applied research center studies the evolving relationship between education and industry. During the 10th Connect Higher Education Summit, Gallagher explored ways non-accredited providers are reshaping postsecondary education—and whether non-institutional programs pose an existential threat to the higher education model. Another layer of this topic is that universities are partnering with coding bootcamps like The Software Guild, a Wiley brand, to offer continuing education opportunities to learners. Wiley University Services met with Dr. Gallagher after his session to discuss the changing nature of education credentials and what this means for colleges and universities.

Wiley University Services: Your session explored the emerging growth of non-accredited education providers. Photo of Sean Gallagher How do you define these providers?

Sean Gallagher: Traditionally, postsecondary education connotes colleges and universities that hold accreditation and also must be licensed by their state. Then there’s this other expanding world of education providers that are not officially educational institutions but offer interesting and, at times, high-quality programs. They include bootcamps, training companies, professional associations, online firms. For example, you might have a MOOC company that officially awards the credential instead of the university.

These providers are also a competitive threat to colleges and universities, and that might be where most people in higher education react. But there’s opportunity for partnership and overlap, and we’re seeing learning and credentials from non-accredited providers articulated into degree programs and certificates. There’s more blending and crossover than people might realize.

Wiley: How do you differentiate college-operated bootcamps from non-accredited providers? Do they all belong to the same emerging education space?

Sean Gallagher: It’s a great question. There’s a philosophical framing where you could go either way. If you’re talking about a bootcamp model that offers a certain type of education or experience, then that can include both non-accredited providers and, increasingly, accredited providers. It seems like most of the recent energy and new program launches in the bootcamp space have come from traditional colleges and universities partnering with entities to get in this game on their own. That said, when we’re talking about non-accredited providers, I draw a bright line between what universities are doing and those that don’t have accreditation.

Wiley: Earlier today, you tweeted a stat from the new Online College Students report that shows 20 percent of online graduate students are pursuing certificates. Is this a way for colleges to compete with non-accredited providers?

Sean Gallagher: Yes, absolutely. Because certificates are rarer historically, they become a new product development opportunity for most programs, departments, and colleges. And certificates are shorter, job-oriented credentials, which is the trend and what there’s growing demand for. Certificates become an avenue for traditional colleges and universities to develop and launch new products that might bring incremental increases in revenue and students.

There’s a narrative in higher education—and certainly, among traditional faculty who haven’t designed online programs or been deeply involved in work-oriented education—you might get the sense that they think, “Wow, certificates are booming. If we offer a certificate, we’ll magically get enrollment because I’m reading in the press that students are beating down the doors to access certificates, because degrees aren’t valued anymore.” I don’t think that’s the case. There’s a reality in the middle when you analyze the opportunity.

To be clear, yes, certificates are a growth area, and they’re a great new product opportunity that often can—and should—stack into a degree program. Or, they can be a way to offer an educational credential for work experience or learning that happened elsewhere. But that segment, based on Online College Students data and what we can see in IPEDS data and other sources shows it’s growing modestly, particularly at the graduate level. I believe that it would be a wonderful policy goal to have—and maybe it should be encouraged—to have various types of certificates or micro-credentials that can replace degrees. But when you look at micro-credentials and certificates—and where they have gained momentum with employers and where students are enrolling—they tend to not be for initial undergraduate study but at the post-baccalaureate or master’s level. The exception may be community colleges that have long done noncredit and workforce-oriented certificates, and I believe those are growing too.

Wiley: How can universities get to the point where they can increase undergraduate-level certificates? Or even offer programs that evolve in line with industry skills needs?

Sean Gallagher: This wasn’t in the presentation, but for all the energy focused on new credentials and alternative credentials, the biggest impact may lie in optimizing the credentials we already have. Can we make bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees more affordable? Can we make them more accelerated? Can we make them more job-market aligned? Can we make them more transparent in terms of their outcomes? Those aspects alone would be important work that would generate greater societal impacts and more enrollments and however else you might measure it. More so than only launching alternative credentials.

Back to your core question, creating a new certificate or moving a degree online or developing a new micro-credential are all processes that involve curriculum development, governance and approvals, marketing a new product, and infrastructure. In all those cases, there are ways and needs for colleges to be more nimble and market-oriented. That’s if colleges respond to competitive pressures, if they’re to meet the needs of the market and thrive. If you aren’t doing those things, if you aren’t moving online, if you aren’t developing or refreshing your products, and your graduates have poor outcomes—those are the sorts of programs and institutions we’re likely to see fail.

Wiley: What lessons can universities learn from non-accredited providers? Are there benefits to colleges partnering with non-accredited providers?

Sean Gallagher: Most colleges are well-positioned in terms of their general infrastructure, know-how, and brand to be more innovative. But the main question is whether a college needs a partner that has a capability they lack. This may be a rationale for a partnership or to make new hires. A college needs certain skills or capacity they haven’t been able to build, so they need the actual human capacity or marketing budget of a partner.

Wiley: In your session, you discussed how employers perceive college degrees when considering job candidates. Do you see that perception changing over time? That’s assuming non-degree learning grows in value.

Sean Gallagher: It’s constantly evolving. We’re at an interesting inflection point right now where employers are doing more talent analytics, and they’re experimenting with skills-based hiring. There’s a very tight job market, there are new credential offerings and providers, and it’s all coming together as a perfect storm that creates the foundation to move away from degrees and toward these other models. These things are happening, and it’s important to monitor.

With that said, generally degrees are pretty solid, and their value literally in terms of economic value and societal value has grown over decades and the last century. Degrees have been beaten up, but there’s still a lot of value there. But there are many pressures—student debt, tuition rates, completion rates. So, the idea that we’re just going to crank out more degrees is not necessarily a solution to meeting some of these needs.

When answering many of these questions, I find it’s a both/and. It’s seems there are two polarized ideologies—on one side, a lot of commentary and energy is focused on tearing down universities and watching them go out of business and the degree being disrupted. Then, far at the other side of the spectrum, you have the ivory tower believing it never has to change, that liberal arts degrees will always be valued for the long term—and the reality is actually in the middle. It takes a lot of analysis to diagnose what we’re talking about and the business problems an institution is trying to solve. Is it that there is a mandate to better serve the employers in my community because that’s my mission? Therefore, do I need to design new credentials or partnerships or take programs online? Or, do I want to grow and therefore need to generate new enrollment? So, as a result, do I need new products or do I need to find new markets for my products? It all depends. But if I am a prestigious, well-resourced university where my degrees are in demand, I might be fairly happy just focusing on those offerings.

Wiley: If you could create a new higher education from scratch, what features would be the building blocks? Would you use features of non-accredited providers?

Sean Gallagher: That’s a great question. I haven’t thought about that before in exactly those terms, based on lessons from non-accredited providers. I would build higher education on a different form of cost model, using different financing mechanisms. I would make college more work-integrated, and that could be experiential learning. There would be more practice and feedback between the classroom and the real world of work. There would be the engagement of industry-based practitioners and real-world work experiences rather than just academically qualified, scholarly faculty. And it would be online and blended, not classroom-based. As an interesting footnote, much of the bootcamp market is face to face, but the broader trends in higher education, corporate learning, and newer bootcamps show there’s continued movement online. Also, strong learning outcomes have been associated with blended or hybrid learning, so a new system would ideally include those elements.

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About the Connect Higher Education Summit

Presented by Wiley University Services, Connect is where higher education leaders and experts gather to explore how colleges and universities can succeed in an age of continual disruption. During the summit, speakers share emerging innovations and ideas for modernizing the delivery of degree programs, helping schools empower distance learners and on-campus students to achieve their career goals. Past presenters include Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance, Betty Vandenbosch of Purdue University Global, and Freeman A. Hrabowski III of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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