Why Credentials Should Connect

The growing national drive to increase postsecondary attainment to 60% by 2025 – a goal Lumina Foundation and many others call Goal 2025 – is driven by the reality that higher levels of knowledge and skills are required in today’s economy and society. Success in some form of postsecondary education is rapidly becoming a prerequisite for both economic security and full participation in the civic life of the nation. At the same time, both national and local economies are increasing dependent on skills to drive future growth and prosperity.

As postsecondary skills and knowledge have become essential to both our economy and to millions of Americans, the need for greater transparency about them has become critical. Postsecondary credentials are the currency through which skills and knowledge are recognized. Credentials are the essential bridge that connect people to jobs, connect educational programs, and define career pathways.

There are myriad credentials in the marketplace, including degrees, educational certificates, occupational licenses, and industry certifications. New types of credentials are emerging, like digital badges and enhanced transcripts. In most cases, there’s little clarity about what these credentials mean ─ their value, their quality and how they connect. And that makes their use difficult – for employers trying to determine whether prospective hires are qualified, and for students trying to navigate an increasingly complex marketplace for education beyond high school. This challenge is particularly dire for low-income students, adult learners and first-generation students – who typically receive less support navigating the complex postsecondary landscape. Even where the skills and knowledge represented by a credential are clear to those who hold them and to employers, the way these credentials connect to other forms of postsecondary learning is not clear.

So what is the problem?

There are several reasons that the lack of transparency about the meaning of credentials is a growing problem:

  1. The range of students served by our education system, and the range of their needs for credentials, is greater than ever. Many of today’s postsecondary students no longer conform to a traditional profile of the newly minted high school graduate in pursuit of a two- or four-year academic degree. Rather, today’s students include students of all ages, including military veterans, dislocated workers, former college students, and underrepresented students – all of whom bring experience, knowledge and skills they need to be able to express through credentials to compete for 21st century jobs.
  1. Employers have trouble finding people with the skills they need. The mismatch between employer needs and the skills of job seekers can only be described as chronic. Current credentials serve as the “currency” denoting that candidates for jobs have the skills employers are seeking, but they fail in this task on many levels. No clear language exists for explaining what credentials mean in terms of skills and knowledge. This makes it difficult for students to understand whether they have what it takes to get a job and for employers to know who is equipped for positions they seek to fill. There’s also no mechanism to ensure credentials’ quality, which adds to students’ and employers’ confusion about who is qualified. It’s nearly impossible to know how various credentials compare to one another, and how they can be combined to give a prospective applicant the competencies needed for on-the-job success.
  1. Many students lack clear pathways to credentials. The lack of transparency about the meaning of credentials is an even more serious problem for individuals seeking education that will help them reach their goals, particularly for employment and careers. This problem takes many forms, but at the root of all of them is the lack of clear pathways to obtain necessary knowledge and skills.
    • New job seekers don’t know which credentials have market value for the jobs and careers they seek and how best to obtain them.
    • People who want or need to make a career transition are unsure how to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in different occupations and industries.
    • Military veterans struggle to translate skills they obtained while in service into civilian credentials, jobs and career pathways.

    These problems are rooted in the lack of transparency about credentials. Individuals often can’t get credit for training they have completed because credentials don’t move with them from one job or region to the next.

    Imagine someone with a bachelor’s degree who pursues an additional credential, such as a postsecondary certificate. There might be a way for her to save time and money in the certificate program by bypassing topics she covered while pursuing her undergraduate degree or by applying knowledge she’s gained through work or life experience. However, because there’s no coherent language to translate the knowledge and skills from one type of credential to another, the student is often required to start anew, adding time and cost. Similarly, a worker who has just lost his job and needs new knowledge and skills to make a career transition has no clear way to see what additional skills he needs, or to discern the shortest route to obtaining them. Addressing this challenge is critical in today’s ever-changing economy – one in which workers must continually add and augment skills in order to remain relevant.

  1. People now receive education and training from an array of providers, which adds to the confusion of what credentials mean and how they connect. To meet the growing demand for credentials, providers of credentials have expanded and an even wider range of education providers has emerged. Colleges and universities today are joined by a growing array of education providers, including online course providers, MOOCs and other open-source efforts, in offering instruction on a wide array of topics. Employers provide education and training through on-the-job apprenticeships, internal programming and partnerships with external organizations. With each pathway, a different type of credential can be attained, from college degrees and certificates to online badges to industry certifications.Within this context of multiple providers, education analysts are increasingly calling for a system of stackable credentials, defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.” Such credentials have the potential to enable people to advance in education and careers without having to start over as their needs and interests change.A particular problem in creating this system is the growing range of education and training that does not carry college credit. While noncredit learning helps people gain valuable knowledge and skills, there is no standard way of recognizing it. This is a problem for both individuals and employers, and it’s a growing problem for education providers, too.
  1. The lack of quality assurance of credentials is a problem. The growing range of postsecondary credentials is putting enormous pressure on our postsecondary quality-assurance systems. Fields such as information technology and healthcare require workers to regularly obtain certifications or licenses to practice their profession, but there is no mechanism to ensure that these certification pathways maintain high standards for quality. But a top-down approach to quality assurance won’t work. The signatories of Creating a Competency-based Credentialing Ecosystem “… see no need to create a single unified accrediting body as other countries have done [to address the quality assurance problem] … rather, the challenge for us is to improve the interoperability of the diverse parts of our complex system in order to (help ensure) quality student outcomes that are transparent, trusted and portable.”

There’s growing agreement that now is the time to act. Today’s economy makes education beyond high school more critical than ever, and the skills required to succeed in the workplace will continue to evolve. For our robust network of credentials to work for students, employers and other stakeholders, we need an exchange system to make diverse credentials widely understood and relevant. In creating a reimagined system that connects credentials, we will provide better life outcomes for the next generation of students, fill the looming gaps in employers’ talent pipeline, and lay the groundwork for a prosperous American economy – for now, and for decades to come.

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