A person takes a photo of a display at a trade show.

worries over the costs and effectiveness of digital credentials for securing science, technology, engineering, and math jobs run high, according to a new survey.

The survey, commissioned by IBM and conducted by Morning Consult, found that 82% of employers in STEM fields are concerned about the affordability of digital credentials. A similar share, 80%, said they worry such credentials may lack relevance or rigor compared to traditional degrees.

Employers see digital credentials, like nano-degrees, certifications, and badges, as potentially valuable supplemental credentials but not full substitutes for degrees, the survey found. They may fill skills gaps or prove competence for specific job roles but likely cannot replace a four-year degree for career advancement over the long run.

“This research indicates that the affordability, relevance, and rigor of digital credentials are top of mind for STEM employers and will be crucial to their adoption,” said Linda West, IBM’s Vice President of Education. “If these concerns aren’t addressed, digital credentials risk being seen as ‘second class’ and may not fully realize their potential to provide greater access and more flexible learning pathways, especially for underrepresented groups.”

IBM and experts call on providers of digital credentials to collaborate with colleges, researchers, and employers to address affordability concerns, validate credentials’ effectiveness, and build understanding. With broader acceptance and support, credentials could open up new opportunities for learners, but they must convince skeptics they adhere to high academic standards and carry real career weight.

“If we’re not thoughtful and intentional about developing credentials that meet learner needs, fill skills gaps, and command respect in the job market, they will fail to disrupt the status quo and open access as we hope,” said Hilary Pennington, IBM’s Executive Vice President of Global Industries, Services and Platforms. “That’s why collaborating across sectors is critically important to getting digital credentials right.”

Most experts agree that digital credentials will complement, not replace, traditional degrees and programs for the foreseeable future. But with commitment to quality, relevance and inclusiveness, they could expand access to career credentials, especially for groups with the fewest opportunities. Success or failure may depend on the concerted efforts being made today to build trust in credentials and shape them for tomorrow’s economy.

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