5 Must-Haves for Viable Credentials

A much-needed accessible and easily understood system for viable credentials could have a major impact on learners, employers and education providers.

By Ronald Bethke

What will it take to make credentialing an easier process for students? How can education stakeholders validate credentials? What do employers need from today’s credentials? How can minority learners better take advantage of these viable credentials?

Those are just some of the issues addressed in a report from Lumina Foundation concerning the Connecting Credentials partnership, which aims to address problems that hamper students’ efforts to attain high-quality, viable credentials in the current higher education system.

In Early 2015, Lumina Foundation, in partnership with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), called for a national dialogue on postsecondary credentialing. A national summit was held on the topic in Washington, D.C. on October 5 last year, co-sponsored by 89 other organizations, with nearly 170 organizations in attendance.

The report, “Connecting Credentials: Lessons from the National Summit on Credentialing and Next Steps in the National Dialogue,” details findings and suggestions from the summit that could lead to a reformed credentialing system boasting greater transparency and portability to better serve the needs of students, employers and educators.

With many different pathways to higher education, each with their own postsecondary credential, there currently is not a common language that enables users to compare and connect them, no system to assure credentials are of quality and relevance to the workplace, and no repository where users can easily obtain relevant information about credentials.

The drawbacks from this system are severe, and especially hamper older, low-income and minority learners who have the potential to fall further behind without a clear pathway to a high-quality higher education.

A Need for Order

As more jobs increasingly demand postsecondary credentials, it is critical for institutions to prepare students as well as they can to succeed, notes the report; meaning developing clear ways to help all employers, students, and education providers to understand credentials’ meaning and value for different purposes.

And if institutions and stakeholders still believe that the need for credentialing is on a distant horizon, they may be wrong: The report reveals that the amount of associate degrees earned has doubled since 2002; technical programs now represent 25 percent of all credentials; and in the last three decades, the number of postsecondary certificates awarded has increased by more than 800 percent.

Yet, despite such a competitive market, only 11 percent of business leaders said they considered college graduates to be prepared for the workforce–a problem that could be remedied through effective credentialing.

5 Vital Focus Areas for Postsecondary Credentials

Through the Connecting Credentials partnership and summit, a vision of a better credentialing system is emerging. The overall consensus of the summit was that a better system must: be centered on learning and defining credentials according to the knowledge and skills that students obtain; be equitable for all students; change dynamically according to what is relevant in the job market; display a transparent understanding of value for the knowledge and skills that each credential represents; be scaleable so that system-wide change can be achieved; and be supportive of innovation.

In order to bring about such a system, the report offers five vital focus areas that must be focused on in order to bring about change:

The first major step is to develop a common language. There must be a common way of explaining credentials in terms of the competencies that each represents, which would then allow different credentials to be more justly compared and connected and advance the goal of having a system centered on learning as the key outcome. This would allow students to more easily select programs relevant to their goals, employers to readily assess the knowledge and skills that prospective hires would bring to the job market, educators to have a basis for developing new and better credentials for today’s job market, and governmental agencies to be able to more easily navigate the system to award financial aid.

Next, it is essential to increase the use of technology and real-time data. Better utilizing these resources could translate the new common language into a digital form using meta data, and then create a digital hub for credentials with technological interfaces that learners and employers could use to research different credentials.

It is also highly important to create nimble quality-assurance processes. Beyond simply increasing the number of people who obtain credentials, it is even more vital to ensure that credentials are of high quality so that workers enter the workforce prepared to thrive, and so that all stakeholders trust the validity of a credential when it is presented. This will take very careful development, but the Connecting Credentials summit agreed that how to assess learners’ progress would be the key to creating a worthwhile system of quality assessment.

Developing scaleable ways of engaging employers is the fourth major step. In order to ensure that credentials are relevant, employers must offer timely feedback on the types of skills and qualifications they are seeking and how well certain credentials fit those criteria. Technology would prove instrumental in achieving this goal, but collaborations need to occur within industries, across industries, within regions, and nationally.

Finally, the last vital step is to build credentialing pathways to increase equity. With a connected credentials system, it’s possible to link quality credentials with meaningful career pathways, which would show learners the options, opportunities and consequences of pursing various career avenues. This is something that has been more difficult for students of color to see, which has resulted in lower credential attainment or certificates that carry little labor market value or opportunity for progression in education. By ensuring pathways offer crucial credential information and various means of support, attainment among first-generation and minority students can rise and lead to greater social equity across the board, states the report.

Other key issues raised at the summit included removing the stigma that is sometimes associated with non-degree credentials, as well as overcoming the traditional model of awarding credentials based solely on seat time, as opposed to better rewarding the past experiences of learners.

The Connecting Credentials initiative is currently establishing work groups that will delve further into each of these five areas. Additionally, they have found that there are already more than 100 other projects currently underway to better connect credentials, ensure their quality and keep them up to date.

Connecting Credentials has launched a website offering a robust supply of information with the aim of helping stakeholders establish common goals and values, determine priorities for action, and align reform efforts. In order to join the dialogue, participate in interactive webinars, become a co-sponsor, contribute to the landscape review, connect with peers, collaborate, or take action, visit their website here.