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Does Our Credentialing System Work Anymore?

Does Our Credentialing System Work Anymore?
In order for higher education to remain relevant in the future, a new system of credentials needs to be devised in concert with all necessary stakeholders, including employers and professional associations.
There is a lot of churn in higher education these days. Some of it is being generated by the Department of Education with encouragement and backing from the White House. For example, on May 15, 2014 the Department announced that $75 million has been made available for the ‘First in the World’ grant competition. “The grants will fund the development and testing of innovative approaches and strategies at colleges and universities that improve college attainment and make higher education more affordable for students and families.”[1]

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “The President is asking for the most innovative thinking that the field has to offer to spark some real creativity and innovation across higher education in order to achieve better outcomes for our students.”

The challenge for higher education is to be truly creative and innovative. It’s not something that, as an industry, we have been very good at. We haven’t had to be. In fact, taking a highly conservative approach and changing very little over the decades has served higher education well. There are few corporations, for instance, that have been in existence for 50 years, let alone for 100 years or more, as have most colleges and universities. However, the times are changing, and there are social and economic changes impacting our society that are significantly different from social and economic changes in the past.

As Daniel Yankelovich, founder of Public Agenda, noted nearly a decade ago, the challenge is nothing less than figuring out how to make higher education more relevant for Americans’ lives; the structure of which has changed dramatically over the past five or six decades. People live much longer, change jobs and careers more often and behave differently than they used to. Thus, what they need from higher education is different than what they needed in the past.

“The old pattern of attending college from 18 to 22 and then going directly to a job, career, marriage, child rearing, and settling down is evaporating before our eyes, ” Yankelovich wrote. Only 15 percent of college students today are what we call “traditional.” Many students work, have families and come in and out of higher education over many years. According to Yelkovich, “the typical undergraduate curriculum is a poor fit for older Americans, and the graduate curriculum is even a poorer one. So are the organization and timing of courses, the credit system, and virtually every aspect of higher education that is now geared to young people at the start of their working lives.”[2]

Unlike the needs in the past, however, people of today need higher education throughout their lives. They need to learn and relearn because they change jobs and careers multiple times across their working lives — and those working lives are much longer than they used to be. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argued that “maintaining the American dream will require learning, working, producing, relearning, and innovating twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as often and twice as much.”[3]

This growing need for more education isn’t answered well by offering more of the same. There isn’t anything magical about 60 or 120 credits or about a formal degree. Ideally, degrees signify the knowledge, skill and ability to be an engaged and productive member of society and to do a particular job but, increasingly, there’s disconnect between what a degree holder is able to do and what an employer needs to get a job done well.

The recent surge and interest in competency-based education is one step toward addressing this challenge. By focusing on the mastery of competencies, attention turns to demonstrating the ability to use and apply acquired knowledge in context, rather than on knowledge acquisition, per se. This helps students understand the value of what they learn, and it allows employers to better evaluate whether an applicant has the requisite abilities to perform well in a job.

Competency-based education, however, is only one step in the needed realignment of higher education with national needs. The next step must be to re-examine the credentialing process and to explore what new kinds of credentials are needed in addition to, or instead of, the ones we already have.

We need credentials that clearly signify demonstrated mastery of applicable knowledge in plainly identified contexts. Some of these exist, such as “certified public accountant,” “certified nurse midwife” and similar credentials. Most are based on traditional degree platforms. There is also panoply of credit and noncredit certificates, badges and other credentials offered by an array of providers that claim to signify knowledge and ability. Most of those credentials, however, are not commonly accepted or commonly understood, and they don’t have clear criteria for quality assurance. Hence, they are not widely recognized as signifying any useful knowledge or skills.

We need to develop a new nomenclature to denote knowledge, skills and abilities within a commonly understood and accepted context. More than that, we need to build a new credentialing structure that develops and offers these credentials in ways that assure quality and transparency for all “consumers” of these credentials, be they students, employers, the Department of Education or others.

This will require difficult and complicated conversations and deliberations between stakeholders. Higher education will have to come to the table and be open about curricular design, recognizing it cannot be exclusively the purview of faculty.

Employers and associations will have to engage with higher education to help hone curricula, and once they have a clear stake and voice in the process, provide assurances to students who successfully complete programs that they will be gainfully employed. And the Department of Education, accreditors and other regulatory groups will need to be flexible, collaborative and innovative so the result is a process and structure that works and, most importantly, meets the rapidly evolving educational needs of this country. This will involve heavy lifting. However, it is imperative we begin this process. In significant measure, the future of this country depends on it.

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[1] “U.S. Department of Education Announces $75 Million First in the World Competition,” US DoE Press Release, May 15, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Daniel Yelkovich, “Ferment and Change: Higher Education in 2015,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 25, 2005. Accessed at

[3] Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. That Used to Be Us (New York City: Picador, 2011), Page 111