We live in tiny houses, make micropayments and use mini fridges. Naturally, now we can also earn micro-credentials.   

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As the name suggests, micro-credentials quailfy individuals to execute specific skills, often in the math, science and technology fields. They’re earned in far less time than traditional degrees — and for a fraction of the cost. Think of them as the next generation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), only more comprehensive, and with a credential at the finish line.  

Haven’t heard of micro-credentials? Then take note, because these bite-sized degrees are gaining traction. In 2015, The Brookings Institute released a paper proporting that abbreviated online degree programs are upending education and giving traditional programs stiff competition.

This is particuarly true in the tech sector, where "skills-based certifications already have a long track record," said Alex Halavais, Director of the MA in Social Technologies at Arizona State University.

“Certain parts of the tech sector have traditionally valued practical skills over broader education,” explained Halavais in an email. "In some ways, it is less a profession than a trade."

But is a microdgree worth it in the long run — and in the short-term, can one get you a job?

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Microdegrees and job partnerships

Two of the largest micro-credential providers, Udacity and Coursea, sell their programs not just on course offerings, but on the promise of a well-paying job.

Udacity, one of the largest online education providers with 11,000 students enrolled wordwide, offers its excluisve nanodegree courses for $200/month. Salwa Muhammad, vice president for student services at Udacity, said that the program is “about bridging the gap and bringing education and jobs to everyone, regardless of where you are in the world or what situation you’re in.”  

Udacity educators partner with tech companies (Intel, Google, and AT&T, for instance) to create project-based curriculums for nanodegrees like front-end web developer, Android basics (one of its most popular) and — coming soon — a self-driving car engineer program. Students develop a portfolio over the course of the program, which they complete at their own pace (it generally takes six to nine months). Then they can then show off their portfolios to those very same companies that collaborated on their curriculum — and hopefully get hired. 

“They’re doing this either because they’re entering a new career and they don’t want to get a four year college degree and start their career so late, or they’re leveling up with their current job,” explained Muhammad, who noted that the majority of Udacity students have college degrees and are working professionals.

Udacity’s tuition includes all course materials and one-on-one coaching sessions with instructors over Google chat or hangouts. Students in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles have the option of meeting with instructors face-to-face at an Udacity center.

Employment prospects

The collaboration between online education providers and prominent tech companies with jobs to fill is part of what makes micro-credentials like Udacity's nanodegree so appealing. And for students who want greater employment assurance, Udacity offers Nanodegree Plus, which promises a full tuition refund if graduates aren’t hired within six months of completing their degree.

Though it’s yet clear how marketable micro-credentials are to employers outside of these partnerships (they're still relatively new), they do level the playing field by making training more accessible to a wider range of people.  

“Udacity's nanodegrees, and programs like them, are providing an exciting and effective alternative to training programs that were often ineffective and expensive for students,” said Halavais.

That being said, Halavais noted that it’s important not to confuse training with an education — and the problem-solving, critical analysis, leadership and team-building skills it so often cultivates. 

“There is no question that the traditional bachelors degree, from a reputable institution, remains the gold standard across industries. A microdegree can help differentiate a candidate whether or not they have a traditional 4-year degree — but it's no substitute.”