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Civilian employers can search a free Badges for Vets database to find veterans qualified for jobs they have open. Vets are issued digital badges that recognize skills and training earned in the military. / Badges for Vets

No one appears quite ready to dismiss the value of a college degree, but cheaper, faster alternatives are gaining credibility in the workplace.

The latest example: AT&T is working with a for-profit online education provider to develop "nanodegrees," its name for a series of courses that will take less than a year to complete and lead directly to entry-level jobs at the company related to Web and mobile applications development.

The coursework, to be launched this fall by online education provider Udacity, will cost about $200 a month. The only prerequisite: the ability to do high school math. A more advanced learner can skip the courses and go straight to a final project.

Though Starbucks grabbed headlines last month for its tuition reimbursement plan for employees who want to complete an online degree program offered by Arizona State University, AT&T's strategy reflects a growing recognition that an academic transcript - or the lack of one - can tell an employer only so much.

The federal government has begun exploring the labor market value of credentials such as apprenticeships, professional licenses and certificates earned outside a traditional college or university.

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For example, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a study this year that for the first time uses federal surveys to estimate how common such credentials are. It found that more than 30% of adults hold an alternative credential, and some of the largest numbers are associated with the fields of construction, transportation, education and health care.

People who have bachelor's degrees or higher were most likely to have an alternative credential, but people with less than a bachelor's degree who had an alternative credential earned more than their counterparts who didn't, the report found. A 2012 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce says the USA would move from 15th to 10th in international rankings of educational attainment if certificates - in fields ranging from health care to cosmetology to aviation - were counted in government statistics.

Some states, including Wisconsin and Oregon, encourage colleges to develop shorter-term credentials, sometimes called "stackable credentials," particularly for rapidly changing industries such as health care, manufacturing and information technology, that a student can earn on the way toward a more traditional degree.

This summer, a congressionally authorized group called Digital Promise is piloting a "micro-credential" for teachers that would assess skills such as working with students who have learning disabilities and engaging students in project-based work. About 500 veterans are participating in a pilot project called Badges for Vets, through which former members of the armed services market their military training, in fields such as aviation or law enforcement, to civilian employers. The project was funded by the non-profit MacArthur Foundation.

"It's all evidence of the same issue, that we really need a new process to help people demonstrate knowledge ... and to signal that to employers in some kind of clear and reliable way," says David Schejbal, a dean at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which offers continuing education across UW campuses statewide. "And we need that process to be shorter than two to four years."

Heightening the urgency is a growing "skills gap" between what colleges deliver and what employers want. Colleges "do a good job at helping students sharpen minds and learn how to think better, but they don't prepare students well for specific jobs," Schejbal says.

AT&T is spending $1.5 million to launch its program with Udacity, through which it hopes to attract "lifelong learners ... who want a change but don't have time to go back for a four-year degree," says Scott Smith, AT&T's vice president of human resources.

Recruiters will continue to visit college campuses, Smith says. There's no guarantee that candidates with a nanodegree will land a job, but those applicants will be strongly considered in hiring decisions. Udacity's nanodegree coursework also is eligible for AT&T's existing tuition reimbursement plan.

Starbucks' new employee perk notwithstanding, AT&T's approach signals a shift in how corporations deploy employee benefits. Once, such plans were viewed primarily as an entitlement. Now, "more and more companies are looking at directing tuition reimbursement toward strategic skills among key players," then providing access to training programs that are "less costly than traditional education," says Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin By Deloitte, a consulting firm.

Pamela Tate, CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, says employees and employers alike may view shorter, targeted and cheaper customized training as more cost-effective than traditional degree programs. Nevertheless, she tells adult learners that a college degree offers them their best shot at a good-paying job.

"That may change, but the fact is that right now the most widely recognized credential are those offered by colleges and universities," she says.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: A cheaper, faster version of a college degree

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