The Future of University Credentials

American higher education today may be influenced more by hiring and vocational outcomes than any other time in history. Policy makers, students, and families look to postsecondary education to improve their chances of getting hired. A new book by Sean Gallagher looks at these issues and provides a thoughtful analysis of the future of university credentials. In today’s post, I want to share a book review of his work for those that may be interested in learning more about this important topic.

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A Review of The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring

As workplace demands grow more technical and as the corresponding expectations of new hires to meet these new requirements quicken, the centrality of higher education in workforce knowledge and skill development also grows (Harris & Holley, 2016).

Given these changes in the knowledge economy, postsecondary credentials serve as the currency exchanged between job seeking employees and prospective employers. The importance of higher education credentials has grown with a concurrent expansion of the types of credentials available to students.

Historically, a college degree stood largely as a signal of employability. However, the growth of online education and the proliferation of new credentials and credentialing organizations like boot camps, software certifications, and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have substantively altered the existing landscape (Selingo, 2015).

To date, limited empirical research exists regarding the influence of emerging new credentials on the human capital exchange between postsecondary institutions and employers.

In his book The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring, Sean R. Gallagher presents surveys, research literature, and over 300 interviews with corporate leaders, hiring managers, and university administration. This provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of university credentials and changes in the ecosystem where they are stressed.

Gallagher’s book describes the evolution of higher education credentialing.

It also chronicles the opportunities and pitfalls encountered by students, institutions, and employers.

The volume begins by contextualizing credentials through a brief history of university credentials and their demand as a signal of being qualified for the job market. Further, the text explores how employers view and use qualifying credentials.

The author also examines lessons learned from more recent developments in alternative degrees and credentials. These include IT certifications and online education brought on by the Internet boom during the 1990s.

The remaining chapters focus on evaluating the maturing online credential market, the technological innovation spurring from it, and how key players within this ecosystem respond to changes in credentialing. The book concludes by synthesizing its central themes and highlighting recommendations for the future.

In addition to providing a detailed overview of the past and present state of university credentials, a key contribution of the book is Gallagher’s separation of the hype surrounding the changes in university credentials and the reality.

His findings debunk the myths surrounding higher education such as the lack of learning that occurs in online education and the obsolescence of traditional brick and mortar universities.

As a result, the author unpacks the complexities that blur our understanding of credentials. This includes the role of institutional prestige and faddish innovations that are perceived to be novel like MOOCs.

Further, the text proposes a vision for the future of quality assurance measures in credentialing and the potential for stronger connections between alternative credentialing efforts and university degrees.

Gallagher calls attention to the interwoven nature of the possibilities and problems of credentials in the eyes of key stakeholders. By doing this, he identifies the multiple forms of signaling to labor markets that are embedded within university credentials.

The author also explains the hard and soft skills attached to the attainment of a degree. He further suggests that alternative credentials, such as certifications and shorter format learning initiatives like open course work completion, have the potential to signal similar abilities.

However, a deeper understanding of their value is needed.

Gallagher’s research is not without several limitations. The book makes a call for stronger empirical research into university credentials and he seeks to fill this need.

However, limited discussion on the methods used to develop the content of this volume is provided. As a result, readers are not able to fully consider the data and analysis undergirding many of the conclusions that are drawn.

While somewhat understandable, the author misses an opportunity to broaden his analysis by failing to fully consider the humanities and social sciences due to his primary emphasis on STEM fields.

Finally, Gallagher spends a considerable portion of the narrative discussing the views of credentials from a wide array of perspectives like university officials, hiring managers, and corporate employers. However, the final recommendations focus almost exclusively on higher education.

This choice prevents the book from coming full circle with a discussion of the broad range of constituencies that influence credentialing. As a result, the recommendations for the future of credentials in universities fall short of their potential.

With all of this having been said, the main premise of The Future of University Credentials proves useful in providing an extensive overview of the past and present state of university credentialing.

Anyone seeking a broader and deeper understanding of credentialing (e.g., hiring managers maximizing the value of postsecondary training of future hires, university leaders desiring to strategically position institutions within job placement networks) would benefit greatly from Gallagher’s research.

Overall, the emergent themes and interviews on the potential of credentialing add a positive contribution to our understanding of the surrounding issues. The author’s work serves as an important first step in providing the empirical research for a topic that should prove integral to the future shape of American higher education. Building upon the findings in Gallagher’s work, other researchers should further explore credentialing to help students, employers, and higher education institutions think more deeply about this important issue.


Harris, M. S., & Holley, K. A. (2016). Universities as anchor institutions: Economic and social potential for urban development. In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, Volume XXXI (pp. 393–440). Dordrecht, NL: Springer.

Selingo, J. J. (2015). College (un)bound: The future of higher education and what it means for students. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

This review first appeared in Teachers College Record. March 2, 2017.

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