Growth of credentials presents implications, opportunities


There are nearly 1 million unique credentials in the marketplace, with nearly half originating from non-academic providers, according to data from Credential Engine.

The wide availability of credentials should be good news for credential-seekers. But the credential marketplace is confusing, and individuals can easily get lost trying to navigate it. Improving and expanding quality standards – and making those standards consistent across all providers – would benefit not only credential-seekers, but also credential providers and employers.

That’s according to a report from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) that looks at the changing landscape of credentials. The review is by a 19-member group of stakeholders in higher education and workforce that spent two years studying credentials within higher education – both those done in partnerships with outside providers and those developed solely by postsecondary institutions.

More options, more implications

The availability of credentials presents both implications and opportunities for students, employers, institutions and accreditors.

For students – particularly adult students looking to reskill or upskill – non-degree credentials, such as certificates, are attractive because they cost less and take less time to attain. But those students often are “navigating the non-degree credential landscape blindly,” the report says. Students can find a low-cost credential advertised online or in a Google search but not truly understand its quality or value, so the return on investment may be low, it says.

Related article: Q&A: A closer look at credentials

More employers are foregoing degree requirements for entry-level jobs, especially as they struggle to find enough workers. Employers are “seeking workers with certain skills and competencies, and they are beginning to understand that there are many ways to get there,” according to the report.

However, the non-degree credential landscape seems as confusing for employers as it is for students.  To evaluate the value of a credential, employers “would require information about the quality of the provider, the quality of the credential, and the skills and competencies developed through the credential pathway,” the report says.

If non-degree credentials represented the same “authenticated experience” as degrees, they would have more value in the workplace, it says.

Postsecondary institutions also see the value of non-degree credentials as student priorities and employer expectations shift. Whether institutions are partnering to offer credentials or developing their own programs, they need to communicate the value of credentials effectively to students and help students relay their value to employers.

The report suggests that institutions consider “the labor-market currency of the credential, the skills and competencies gained, and alignment of those skills and competencies with the institution’s existing degree pathways.”

The role of accreditors

Accreditors also have a role to play. As “gatekeepers of quality,” they can certify the quality of non-degree credentials.

Accreditors can work with institutions to develop quality assurance mechanisms for non-degree credentials. That work can “signal the value of those credentials and encourage the development of credential pathways,” the report says.

Because the value of a non-degree credential lies predominantly in the employer marketplace, accreditors need to work closely with employers to better understand the skills and competencies associated with credentials.

The opportunity can also benefit accreditors, the report says. Since accreditors are no longer bound to a specific geographic area, they can increase their client base by certifying the quality of non-degree credentials.

The report also looks at how HLC can lead in executing a plan for accrediting credentials.

“We are intrigued by the report’s findings, especially possibilities presented for HLC to be a driver of transformation in higher education, where partnerships with employers that create jobs and improve workforce quality are growing,” HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley said in a release.

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About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.
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