Benchmark This!

Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

The Lego™ Generation, Stackable Credentials and the New Economy

With Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon and lockdowns and more preventive measures emerging, the world has hope despite a rising number of cases in the U.S. and in other countries.  What is clear is that global economies will never be the same.  Until the pandemic and the virus are controlled, economies are not likely to recover.  When they do, many industries will grow from where they were before the pandemic (automation, robotics, logistics, data sciences, renewable energy) and many will contract (retail, fine dining, travel, tourism), while others will transform (food, agriculture, manufacturing, banking/finance, sports/entertainment, healthcare).  As a result, higher education will have to follow suit and adapt teaching and learning, educational delivery, and credentials to align with the changing marketplace.


Further complicating the post-pandemic economy will be the new employee in the new work environment.  The pandemic showed the world an alternative economy where many individuals work remotely with diverse co-workers via video.  Many who lost employment will be forever scarred and will look for ways to keep this from happening in the future.  As a result, values have changed, especially with the new workers … Generation Z.


Like their Lego™ toys, Generation Z in the U.S. grew up in a stackable, modular K-12 education.  Associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees will not go away, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  However, a new economy may warrant higher education institutions to rapidly implement alternative credentials, such as badges, certificates, and micro-credentials.  For Generation Z  (those 18 to 24 years of age) and young Millennials (25 to 29 year-olds) entering the workforce, a modular and stackable form of education that is delivered in both a convenient (online when appropriate) and preferred manner (classroom when possible) that increases the likelihood of employment will be the educational model and pathway for many.  Institutions of higher education may not be able to revise their existing degrees or develop new degrees at a pace required of the new economy.


The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) has the experience and leadership to help colleges and universities move faster to this new educational model with quality offerings.  UPCEA leaders were pioneers in the race to online (Sandeen 2013).[i]  They were also foundational to community-based education, as well as professional noncredit education with many issuing continuing education units (CEUs) and certificates.[ii]


There are signs that alternative credentials have staying power.  Strada Education shows growth and preference for skills-based and nondegree credentials.[iii]  A part of the optimal education model includes noncredit to credit pathways where learning, regardless of its being credit or noncredit, should count toward a degree.  A recent UPCEA membership survey shows that many institutions (43%) are moving in this direction.  Of these, approximately three-quarters are in the exploration or pilot stage of building out processes for noncredit-to-credit transfer.[iv]  With noncredit-to-credit in the works and badging and alternative credentials gaining momentum, plugging them in or fitting the pieces together to a larger credential such as a degree seems inevitable, especially given the anticipated speed toward a post-pandemic recovery.  Like Legos™, stackable credentials, whether they are purposefully designed noncredit badges fitting into a certificate which in turn fits into an associate’s degree which fits into a bachelor’s degree, or graduate certificates fitting into a master’s degree, will be the best educational model for the new, more nimble pandemic-sensitive economy.  The results of UPCEA research and a possible model for alternative credentials can be found at here. 


Lego™ was not always a stackable “brick”; it was a toy company first and had to evolve over time.  It evolved from a limited variety of colored bricks to a more complicated, but consumer-focused experience with the franchise having small toy sets fitting into a larger thematic toy experience designed around a child’s imagination.  Colleges and universities need to continue to evolve and innovate, creating an educational experience that is stackable, adaptable and relevant to the larger landscape … our economy and society.




[i] Sandeen, C., The Emerging World of Alternative Credentials, Higher Education Today, October 1, 2013.

[ii] Fong, J., Janzow, P. and Peck, K., Demographic Shifts in Educational Demand and the Rise of Alternative Credentials, UPCEA Publication, June 2016.

[iii] Fain, P., Alternative Credentials on the Rise, InsideHigherEd, August 27, 2020.

[iv] Ruhland, G., Wilson, L., von Doetinchem, S., and Fong, J., Non-Credit-to-Credit Pathway Activities, 2020 UPCEA West Presentation, October 13, 2020.

Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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