Today’s marketplace for education credentials is highly fragmented ranging from badges and industry-based certifications to two- and four-year degrees and beyond. It’s a complex, multi-layered ecosystem that presents major challenges for students, employers, workers and policymakers. Individuals encounter too many dead ends as they work to gain the skills and credentials they need to advance. Employers have lost trust in credentials as they seek the skilled employees they need to compete globally. Policymakers at all levels are unsure about how to protect users and assure quality education and credentials in an increasingly diversified learning environment.
Over the past 30 years, there’s been a surge – an increase of more than 800 percent – in the number of certificates awarded by higher education institutions and other providers of education and training. At the same time, the number of certifications offered by industry-based organizations has grown extensively. The immense growth of online learning and the development of new kinds of credentials such as badges compound the problem further. Validation of credentials is uneven too. While the nation boasts more than 4,000 personnel-certification bodies, less than 10 percent of them are accredited or reviewed by a third party.
In short, the credentialing world is confusing, at times even chaotic. To enhance the utility of credentials and reduce costs borne by individuals and employers, we need a common language – a unified analytic framework that helps stakeholders compare the value and suitability of different types of credentials. This Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework, developed on behalf of Lumina Foundation by experts from the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), aims to fill that need.
The Framework uses competencies – what the learner knows and is able to do – as common reference points to help understand and compare levels of knowledge, skills and abilities that underlie degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges and other credentials. Competencies are understood both in industry and academia and can be applied in multiple contexts, making them a powerful unifying way to examine credentials.
The Framework is intended to connect the dots among diverse credentials by using common language to describe what recipients of each credential should know and be able to do. This would help clarify the meaning of credentials, make them easier to compare, and make it possible to translate the learning gained from one credential toward securing another.
If you’re developing and awarding credentials, using them to hire employees, creating competency-based curriculum, or helping students find a career pathway, the Framework has been developed to support your work.
Lumina Foundation has long worked toward one aim – an education-attainment goal whose achievement is critical to the nation’s social progress and it economic future. That goal, Goal 2025, calls for 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree or other high-quality postsecondary credential within 10 years – by 2025. In pursuing that goal, we’re committed not only to increase the number of credentials earned, but also to ensure the quality of those credentials. In other words, we want to ensure that postsecondary credentials represent genuine learning of the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in the workplace and in life.
This commitment to defining educational quality in terms of student learning has driven much of our work in recent years, including the creation of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The DQP—drafted in beta form in 2011 and honed by more than five years of testing on hundreds of campuses all over the nation – is a baseline set of reference points for what college graduates (i.e. those awarded associate, bachelor’s or mater’s degrees) should know and be able to do. In short, it is a tool for ensuring high-quality learning at the college level – not the only tool, of course, but certainly one that has proven its value.
One way the DQP has been valuable is that it has underscored the need for a larger and more comprehensive framework – one that incorporates not only degrees, but all postsecondary credentials, from badges and other forms of “micro-credentialing” all the way through advanced degrees and post-doctoral study. The beta Credentials Framework, is our initial attempt to meet that need.
We at Lumina are convinced that this Framework that connects credentials, once fully fleshed out and rigorously tested, will be of great benefit because it can help create clear and multiple pathways for students as they seek to build – and rebuild — their careers and lives. What’s more, we see such a framework as a tool in a larger end even more vital effort, that is, redesigning the nation’s current postsecondary system into one that it is truly learning-based and student-centered.
We know full well that this redesign effort – and the task of creating a viable, comprehensive framework – are both long-term projects. In fact, neither will be accomplished without many years of diligent and cooperative effort among a range of individuals, organizations and institutions. Still, we also know that we’re not alone in this work. A national dialogue is already underway about how to create a more seamless and comprehensive system of credentials. We hope this document helps stimulate and support that dialogue. To that end, we encourage you to review this Framework, to test its application at your institution or organization, and to share your views at www.connectingcredentials.org.
By providing common language and a unified framework for understanding the competencies associated with different credentials, applications of the Framework can improve all of the following:
Equity. More transparent credentials create clearly visible pathways to increase career and economic mobility for historically underserved and underrepresented populations, particularly African American, Latino and Native American students.
Credential Transparency. The Framework makes it easier to understand the competencies associated with any credential.
Comparability. It makes it possible for stakeholders to compare the value of various credentials and determine which credential best fits their needs.
Portability. It supports the translation of learning acquired across institutions and between academic institutions and employers.
Tools based on the Framework can help individuals and companies reduce time and cost required to complete credentials. The Framework can also lead to better-informed choices about education and employment and about hiring and promotion of workers. Specific potential applications include facilitating:
Organized around competencies that are broken into two learning domains: knowledge, and skills. The latter domain is broken into three sub-domains: specialized skills, personal skills and social skills.
Structured in eight levels that indicate the relative complexity, breath and/or depth of learning achievement, rather than subject matter.
Flexible, in that it allows for precise analysis and reflection on the attributes of each individual credential rather than attempting to peg all credentials of a certain type to a fixed level.
Able to establish a profile of levels of knowledge and skills associated with a given credential as well as an aggregate level of that credential.
For the sake of clarity, the competencies for each domain are described independently. However, domains are complementary. In practice, specific competencies typically integrate knowledge, one or more skills, and some method of demonstrating one’s abilities. The same point applies to learners’ actual development of the expected competencies. Students learn what they practice, and they frequently encounter assignments or tasks with respect to academic, non-academic, societal and work demands that require them to integrate knowledge, specific skills and applications.
Different credentials represent different patterns of competency attainment across domains.
There is no presumptive level for any type of credential, and the profile of any specific credential includes a different level for each domain. The competencies described at each level may be found in multiple credentials.
Characteristics already described at one level are not repeated at higher levels unless additional elaboration is required.
Learners can attain the competencies expressed at each level through many learning paths – sequential and non-sequential. The competency levels do not assume that credentials must be acquired in the same sequence. In practice, many learners will start at a lower competency level and progress to higher levels. But it is also possible to gain two different credentials that have similar competency profiles – or to progress from a credential with a higher competency profile to one with a lower level profile – or to progress from a credential with a higher competency profile to one with a lower level profile – if new learning and skills are acquired. For example, an IT certification could be earned during high school, but could also be of value to a mid-career worker who holds a master’s degree.
Just as learning is cumulative but rarely follows a rigid sequence, evidence for learning is cumulative and reflects programmatic and individual differences in institutional and labor market needs and choices.
The competencies are presented through active verbs that declare what learners should do to demonstrate mastery. These active verbs are deliberately cast at increasing levels of difficulty or complexity.
The competency descriptors and level indicators do not prescribe how well a learner must perform to demonstrate mastery. They are meant to support assessment and demonstration that the student has achieved the competencies associated with specific credentials.
The Framework refers to knowledge and skills, with the latter being divided into specialized, personal and social skills. Personal and social skills refer to a wide range of skills that all individuals need to succeed, regardless of educational discipline or occupation. In some frameworks, particularly the “KSA” frameworks used in employment settings, these skills are called “abilities.” We chose to classify them as skills to emphasize the fact that they can be learned.
The Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework can be used to profile existing credentials by describing the credential within the context of the Framework. This type of comparison helps users understand more about the types of knowledge and skills that a given credential represents. The profile also helps place the credential along a continuum and supports determining pathways that lead up to and beyond a specific credential.
Additional uses for the Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework include, but are not limited to:
Identifying next levels of knowledge and skills to move along a continuum of credentials.
As experimentation projects emerge, the list of possible applications for the Connecting Credentials:A Beta Credentials Framework is expected to grow. A more detailed toolkit for using the Framework is in development. For more information about the Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The beta version of the Credentials Framework was developed by a team led by CSW and CLASP, with input from dozens of experts from colleges, industry, certification/accreditation agencies and policy organizations. Four industry panels of educators and industry representatives were convened to explore the dynamics of credentialing in each selected industry and identify cross-industry patterns. Credential users from colleges and industry mapped more than 30 specific educational certificates, degrees, and industry certifications against a prior draft of the Framework to test its workability.
The overall consensus of that input strongly supported continuing development of the Framework, and many of the participants articulated potential value propositions for its use.
Framework developers closely examined many other frameworks being developed and used in the U.S. and internationally. The Framework is designed to align with key U.S.-based tools including Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile and Tuning initiative, and the Employability Skills Framework developed by the National Network of Business and Industry Associations. The beta Credentials Framework draws on language and concepts found in each of those sources, but attempts to use language that can be understood and related equally well by business, learners, and educators.
Development of the beta Credentials Framework complements numerous efforts underway throughout the country to increase interoperability and transparency about learning and labor market outcomes in the credentialing marketplace, and promote competency-based education, credentialing and hiring practices. It also is aligned with initiatives to increase portability of credentials and recognition of learning regardless of where it occurs.
In addition, the Framework is part of an international movement to use outcome-based measures as a catalytic tool for increasing the connectivity between academic and occupational credentials. The Framework’s design was informed by examination of similar frameworks being used in other countries, most of which are based on the European Qualifications. Framework.
The beta Credentials Framework is intended to be a tool that will be improved regularly based on input from users. In fact, the beta version restructured the competency domains and changed the number of levels from ten to eight based on feedback to the initial draft.
During the Credentials Framework’s beta phase, four types of work will be undertaken to improve it: