Q&A: Understanding HLC’s Credential Lab


Editor’s note: This Q&A comes from an edited transcript of an interview with Melanie Booth, executive director of HLC Credential Lab.

Melanie Booth

Melanie Booth, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) new Credential Lab, discusses the lab’s goals and the impetus to help colleges, employers and students make sense of the growing market in non-degree or other alternative credentials. This effort is occurring against a backdrop of disruptive change across higher education and the labor market. HLC is a U.S. college and university accreditor.

As community and technical colleges across the country position themselves to serve multiple stakeholders – students, communities and employers – efforts such as HLC’s Credential Lab to facilitate knowledge sharing between stakeholders and to develop best practices will serve as important guideposts for educational institutions.

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HLC has been working in the innovation area for several years. They had a convening of stakeholders called Partners in Transformation, who wanted to look out on the landscape and figure out what are some of the obvious challenges that institutions will be having, where there are opportunities, and what does that mean for quality assurance and accreditation. After that, there was another thought leadership group called the Stakeholders’ Roundtable.

HLC published a series of very thoughtful white papers delving into this changing landscape. One of them was really about quality and the proliferation of non-degree credentials. It called on HLC to help colleges and universities navigate this dynamic innovation landscape while maintaining quality. Many institutions are trying to partner with external content providers to stand up these credentials quickly to be workforce responsive, but they don’t have any information about the providers.

I came on board in spring 2023 in a consultative role to support a couple of feasibility studies. As part of this effort, I talked to a variety of third-party credential content providers and asked, “If you were to go through a quality assurance process that has standards and a process and you were to have an endorsement, or something like a ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ from HLC, would you find value in that?” They were enthusiastic about it because they could then be considered a preferred provider if they met the standards. And so, they really found a great deal of value in it for their own marketability, but also in learning how to better work with colleges and universities as business partners. One of the things they talked about was their difficulty in figuring out how to navigate faculty governance, for instance.

HLC also conducted a survey of its membership in spring 2023 and found that many member institutions were seeing that if they weren’t already thinking about non-degree credentials, they needed to be. Students are asking for them, but employers want to know, how do we validate their value? There’s a real need when you’re designing these programs to bring employers to the table as co-designers. For HLC, the question is, how can we make sure that students are getting what they need while ensuring that these credentials function as on-ramps to further education and also off-ramps to employment? We have a great leadership advisory board and also a quality assurance design team that will help co-design the quality assurance standards and process and then test and iterate them.

This is a big cultural shift – a paradigm shift. I led prior learning assessment (PLA) programs for almost 10 years, and although the leadership of my institutions were on board, for individual faculty, this was not always as true. There’s a high degree of faculty skepticism because it is not traditional. They legitimately ask: “How can students possibly learn what I teach in my class by not taking my class?” You have to engage the early adopters to help make the case, particularly if they’ve done the work of assessing and they’ve seen the evidence.

I have stories that I can share with faculty like the one about my student who was the mayor of his town and an entrepreneur who ran 12 pizza restaurants at age 45 but had never finished his degree. And gosh! He knows a lot about business and about community engagement, politics and leadership, so why take those classes if he can demonstrate college-level learning from other sources?

I always worked on getting faculty buy-in with storytelling and specific examples of student work that conveyed the outcomes that faculty were trying to get to and inviting them to just try it. But honestly, I think the motivation for change is in the quality of the evidence of student competency.

We’re asking our faculty to do a lot of paradigm shifting all at once right now, too. We want to acknowledge credit for prior learning. We want to talk about competency-based education instead of seat time. We want to look at learning outcomes, assess them, and map them to course and program outcomes – but also more granular skills! We also want to make sure that they’re relevant to the external world and bring in employers.

Credential Lab’s optimal outcome is to ensure that learners have relevant credentialing options, that they have confidence in their quality, where they’ll lead, how they stack up, and that employers will recognize them. It’s a big ocean that needs boiling and there are many people swimming in it and working on this problem. We’re trying to collaborate with as many of them as possible.

When HLC made the initial announcement [about the formation of Credential Lab], we had more industry partner interest than we anticipated. We’re still forming so the number of providers that have contacted us was a surprise. But we have a fabulous group of people who will be co-designing this with us to ensure our workstreams are aligned and helpful to the dynamic field.

With the rapid pace of change in the world of work, that concept of “lifelong learning” that we all have in our mission statements needs to be something that we all start living. I can’t remember who first developed the terminology, but I first heard the idea of the 60-year curriculum from the University of California, Irvine. Students aren’t just coming for a two-year degree or a four-year degree or a six-month certificate. They’re going to need to come back repeatedly – practicing learning as a way of living.

About the Author

Suzanne Wilson Summers
Suzanne Wilson Summers is a Fellow at the Gardner Institute.
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