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Gallagher, S. R. (2016). The future of university credentials. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Sean Gallagher (2016), chief strategy officer for Northeastern University’s Global Network and nationally recognized expert on strategy and innovation in higher education, authored The Future of University Credentialing: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring.  Gallagher’s text offers a compelling summary of contemporary trends in higher education credentialing.  The book includes a historical analysis of innovative higher education models that include online education, professional certifications, certificate programs, massive open online courses (MOOCs), competency-based education (CBE), intensive boot camps, nanodegrees, and other micro-credentials.  Each educational model is reviewed for its role as a credentialing mechanism in the U.S. higher education sector.  This paper will summarize Gallagher’s research, offer an analysis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, and identify the appropriate audience for the volume.

Summary of Research

The author organized the book into six sections: the market perspective in academia (preface), higher education as a credentialing agent (introduction), credentialing in the marketplace (chapters 1 and 2), traditional and short-term forms of online education (chapters 3 and 4), technology-driven credentialing in the job market (chapter 5), contemporary models in higher education credentialing (chapter 6), and policy recommendations for the future (chapter 7).  Each section includes a review of scholarship in the field and an analysis of trends in higher education.

In the first section, Gallagher confronts the national dialogue regarding the calls for change in the U.S. higher education sector.  The text cites national pundits, including Carey (2015), Christensen and Eyring (2011), and Selingo (2013), who have offered negative assessments of the sector and called for the adoption of technology-driven solutions.  Such solutions center the discussion around a market perspective that accounts for the “notions of markets and economic theory” (p. xiv), which is an anathema to the academic culture.  Gallagher clearly sides with the market perspective, citing research from Armstrong (2014), Keller (1983), and Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy (2005).  Each of these scholars noted the importance of business strategies, business model lenses, and market analysis that is most reminiscent of economic theory and strategy.  Gallagher (2016) does address the concerns of Slaughter and Rhoads (2004), who were concerned about the eroding of academic culture with a focus on students as customers.  However, Gallagher calls for the adoption of a market perspective that is “an appropriate, relevant, and timely lens through which to view higher education” (p. xv).

Section two discusses the intersection of higher education credentialing and the job market, giving primacy to the college degree.  The section includes a review of degree opportunities, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, as well as the lesser awarded diplomas and certificates.  The value of a degree in the job market, as well as its economic value for the individual, serve as evidence of the college degree’s primacy in the marketplace.  Gallagher summarizes the recent skepticism of the public media (e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education, Economist, and New Yorker) as well as the significant investments of capital and private equity into higher education.  These trends illuminate, according to Gallagher, the importance of credentialing and the evolving ecosystem of alternative credentialing agents, which have the potential to disrupt the monolithic college degree.

In section three, Gallagher provides a historical review of the higher education sector from the Morrill Act of 1862, which was significant to the creation of land grant colleges and universities, to the modern era.  This section also challenges assumptions about the nature of a degree, noting the importance of the credentials for future employment.  The author cites research from Autor (2010), Baker (2009), and Carnevale and Rose (2015), who have noted the changing demands of the marketplace for credentialed workers.  The necessity for postsecondary education have escalated in recent decades as more jobs require education credentials.  In fact, the workplace is dominated by knowledge workers, who possess educationally created expertise by virtue of a higher education degree (Baker, 2009).  All of the above research raises the profile of a college education as an essential requirement in the job market for many industries.  The increased insistence on a college education has led to a significant economic value of the university degree for the individual, as compared to the high school diploma or non-postsecondary credential.

Section two also explores the role of the college degree in the job market.  Evidence from recruiting and hiring practices is provided to demonstrated the value assigned to a university credential.  Gallagher notes that such hiring practices evaluate not only degree attainment but also the prestige of the institution, the level of the credential (e.g., bachelor’s versus master’s degree), and the intangible outcomes of a college education (e.g., creativity, critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills).

As a transition, Gallagher explores in section three the early forms of alternative credentialing via online education.  The author summarizes the evolution of information technology (IT) certifications in non-postsecondary institutions, which responded to the growth of the technology field in the 1990s, and the subsequent growth of online education in public and private institutions.  Section three also includes a review of the mainstream online degree options, including those offered through public and private institutions.  Emphasis is given to the growth of for-profit institutions that experienced the incredible enrollment gains in the late 1990s and 2000s.  Gallagher also reviews the expansion of non-profit institutions into online education as well as the integration of non-profit education with for-profit practices vie enablement companies that support the institutions with enrollment and academic support services.  The remainder of section three is dedicated to a thorough review of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Section four shifts the attention from higher education to job market practices in recruitment and hiring.  Gallagher highlights the use of credentialing systems in the job marketing, including e-portfolios, competency management systems, digital credentials, talent analytics, pre-hire assessments, professional networks, and competency-based hiring.  Each of these practices reflect technology-mediated credentialing systems to recruit, identify, and hire the best employees.  Gallagher argues that the emergence of such systems in the marketplace should influence practices in higher education.

In section six, Gallagher explore the less-than-mainstream forms of higher education credentialing, which have emerged in the past decade.  This section explores the role and necessity of the quality assurance framework in the form of accreditation, federal governments, and state governments.  Gallagher makes a compelling case for the adaptation of these traditional systems in accounting for new forms of credentialing.  Such credentials include digital badging, intensive boot camps in technology-related fields, MOOC-based certificates, industry-focused professional diplomas, and competency-based education.

The final section offers a set of policy recommendations for the development, continuance, and advancement of higher education credentialing.  Gallagher does not devalue the college degree, but he does argue for the inclusion of alternative credentialing.  Central to these strategies is the integration and collaboration with employers who will profit the most from the proper education and credentialing of students.  Gallagher poignantly states,

“. . . higher education cannot neglect the role that the employers and their hiring process play in shaping the value of and demand for postsecondary education.  Employers are not simply buyers of college-educated talent at the end of the educational pipeline; rather, they are active participants with great power and influence in shaping or even dictating in some sense how the higher education marketplace evolves in this age that recognizes university-level education as the dominant pathway to professional work” (p. 186).

Analysis of Research

Gallagher’s contributions are summative of the major trends that will shape the future of higher education.  The author does an exceptional job of identifying and describing the major forms of credentialing, including those within traditional postsecondary institutions and through alternative formats.  Each credentialing mechanism is properly described and analyzed within the credentialing framework.  The text also provides a helpful historical analysis to help the reader understand the development of various models.  Students of higher education must understand the historical development of an educational model to fully understand its inherent challenges and opportunities.

A secondary strength of the text is Gallagher’s policy recommendations in the final chapter.  These recommendations reflect major policy discussions to be conducted in the next decade, especially as the federal and state governments contend with the value of higher education.  Specifically, the policy recommendation pertaining to quality assurance for alternative forms of credentialing is an important juxtaposition to the dominant forms of regional and national accreditation.  Moreover, Gallagher’s recommendation for systems that enable lifelong learning is an important discussion for the future of higher education.  Alternative credentialing, through MOOCs, certificate programs, nanodegrees, and micro-masters, offers students the ability to develop additional credentials without devaluing the importance of a college degree.  Thus, these credentialing systems expand the higher education system rather than detract from its usefulness as a social, economic, and personal development system.

Notwithstanding the above strengths, the text does lack in specific areas.  First, while the book makes a compelling case for the primacy of the college degree, Gallagher does not properly assess the quality of the degree options and the effectiveness of the quality assurance apparatus. Challenges related to college completion rates, tuition increases, student indebtedness, and delinquency rates are addressed in the federal government’s quality assurance apparatus (i.e., triad), including requirements for regional or national accreditation from a recognized organization, authorization within states that institutions operate, and federal standards for financial operations (e.g., 90/10 rule and student loan default rates; Kelly, 2015;  2016).

There is, however, growing skepticism about the effectiveness of the quality assurance system to ensure the quality of a degree program.  Recent reports have noted failures by accreditation agencies to properly sanction institutions for poor outcomes (Kelchen, 2015b; United States Government Accountability Office, 2014).  At its core, the effectiveness of the national and regional accreditation system relies on peer evaluators, often leading to conflicts of interest (Kelchen, 2015b; Kelly, 2015), which impugns its credibility as a valid assessment of quality.  Concerns about the quality of a higher education degree, compounded by the mounting prices, are certainly influential factors in the development of alternative forms of credentialing. A review of these quality concerns might strengthen the rationale for alternative credentialing or present opportunities for the improvement of a university credential.

Second, Gallagher provides a very limited review of competency-based education (CBE).  Of all the various credential formats, CBE programs are growing at unprecedented rate.  In recent years, the use of CBE by postsecondary institutions has expanded dramatically, with 34 institutions offering programs as of spring 2014 (Kelchen, 2015a).  Of these 34 participating institutions, approximately 197,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs were enrolled in the nine largest providers (Kelchen, 2015a).   The text only provides a limited review of this educational model, which will likely influence other forms of credentialing.  As an example, many certificates, nanodegrees, and micro-masters adopt a competency-based framework for curriculum development and delivery.  Moreover, as the author discussed in chapter five, employers are also moving toward competency-base hiring practices.  Such education and workplace examples offer a compelling case for additional research.

Third, although the text is from a credentials framework, the author does not discuss the non-economic values of a higher education.  Outcomes of a college education extend beyond the economic return to college graduates.  Wolfe and Haveman (2002) identified 15 non-economic outcomes, including the following: quality of child development, child health and fertility, personal healthy, job search efficiency, charitable giving, private savings, increased societal cohesion, and the reduction of crime.

Fourth, the author only briefly describes the economic return differential for varying social classes.  Despite its capacity to provide graduates with significant economic benefits, compared to under-educated populations, the U.S. higher education system has varied social mobility results between those from high- and low-socioeconomic families (Haveman & Smeeding, 2006).  The higher education system, in effect, reinforces the socioeconomic statuses in the U.S., by virtue of college choice, admission standards, and graduation rates (Goldthorpe, 2014; Haveman & Smeeding, 2006).  College completion rates of minority and low-socioeconomic students fall below national averages, resulting in students failing to benefit from the full economic return of a college education (Haskins, Holzer, & Lerman, 2009).  Thus, the text would benefit from a more thorough analysis of the outcome of a university credential.  Such evidence might support the development of alternative credentials that are not historically tied to these social categories.

A final critique of Gallagher’s research is its limited focus on the U.S. higher education system.  Although Gallagher is writing to the U.S. job market, the research would benefit from a global perspective of education and hiring.  Students may graduate from U.S. institutions and work for transnational corporations with headquarters in domestic and non-domestic locations.  Hiring practices for such companies may require different forms of credentials that are not consistent with models in the U.S.  In addition, the research should include a review of global education models that offer a variety of credentials.  Such research may support policy discussion in the U.S. as it serves a global marketplace.


The Future of University Credentials is a helpful resource for identifying and describing the various forms of credentialing in the U.S. higher education system.  The text provides an analysis of each credentialing model, whether an offering of accredited institutions or alternative providers.  Notwithstanding these strengths, the textbook is only an introduction to the subject; more thorough analysis on specific credentialing models and outcomes will require further exploration in a separate venue.  This volume is well-suited for a broad audience of university leaders, government officials, employers, and investors.  Researchers would only benefit from the text as an introduction to the subject.  In summary, Gallagher offers a compelling case for the development of a credentialing system, whether through accredited or alternative institutions, that supports the job market and lifelong learning.


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