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Are Accreditors Ready for an Incremental Credentialing System? Part 1

As institutions look to implement more credentialing, accrediting bodies need to be there for support to ensure credentials are high-quality and meet requirements. 

Credential As You Go hosted an online Summit on Higher Education, Quality Assurance & Incremental Credentialing on February 1, 2023. The discussion focused on ways accrediting bodies support incremental credentials, and what institutions and state systems of higher education are doing to ensure quality and address accreditation requirements in incremental credentialing. The following summary, the first in a three-part series, has been abridged and edited from the recorded transcript.


Barbara Gelman-Danley, President of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), served as moderator for the panel:

  • Belle Wheelan, President, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Angela Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer, Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM)
  • Deb Moeckel, Assistant Provost for Assessment and Community College Education at State University of New York (SUNY) 
  • Kim Poast, Chief Student Success & Academic Affairs Officer, Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE)


Q. How ready are accreditors to address the changing credential landscape?

Barbara: The HLC has been working on the changing landscape for quite a while, especially on what credentials mean? We commissioned research and have been studying annual trends—the trends are going way up as far as the role of credentials. As Chair of the Credential Engine Board, there are amazing statistics coming out: There are over 1 million unique credentials in the U.S., 350,000+ in postsecondary education; the nonacademic provider numbers are over 600,000; and secondary schools are approaching 60,000. When you put all that together, it’s very clear that we all need to stay on top of credentials.

Belle: Readinessdepends on the accreditor and how many of their institutions are involved in implementing credentials, either on the credit or non-credit side of the house. It depends on whether there are programs already in place for which the institution has been approved and the credentials are merely a piece of that approved program. It depends on whether it’s a brand-new certificate or other type of credential—and whether the institution would have to go through the substantive change process. So, although it depends, the answer is yes, I think we’re ready to deal with it because we’ve already been dealing with it. The challenge for institutional accreditors is we don’t currently evaluate stuff on the non-credit side of the house, and many of these credentials are coming through non-credit education. In our agency, we are putting together a regional committee to talk about credentials, what we need to do and how to evaluate what’s coming through the non-credit side of the house. We think we’re pretty okay with the credit side, but with the non-credit side, where they’re coming in fast and furious, we just don’t have the standards in place. Institutions do have to deal with that.

Deb: What SUNY has done is apply the standards used for credit to non-credit. We have microcredentials that are non-credit, non-credit to credit, all those kinds of things. We require them to assess those programs the same way we would for any other program. The other piece that matters to us is that it goes through faculty governance whether non-credit or credit. There is a process to ensure quality from the very beginning. We have been working very closely with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools on this (our institutional accreditor). We had extensive conversations with them when we began this process to be sure credentials of less than a year were included within the scope of their accreditation. It turned out to be a simple notification process at no cost to the institutions. That’s worked tremendously well. About half of our 64 institutions are offering microcredentials, and this has happened essentially in the past 5 years.

Kim: A lot is going on in Colorado around microcredentials and prior learning assessment. From a state system of higher education perspective, the institution first must have the statutory role and mission that allow them to offer the kinds of credentials they want. Then we have a portfolio in place: credit for prior learning, work-based learning for college credit, military experiences, standard Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), and a new strand of work looking at stackable credentials and non-credit credentials and how we bring them in primarily through prior learning assessment. We passed a bill last year that enables some four-year institutions to address students who have stopped out and want to earn an associate degree at a four-year institution. We’ve been working proactively with the HLC to accelerate the substantive approval process with those institutions of higher education. So, like Belle said, it depends on the kinds of programs we’re trying to offer, how they are counted in our system, how we pay for the credentials, etc. We’re leveraging our partners and the HLC and other accreditors to help us think deeply about accelerating a process and making it easier.

Angela: As a specialized accreditor, CAHIIM encourages our colleges and university programs to innovate and evaluate prior learning credit credentials. There are many terms being used. On our website, we’ve provided a definition for which of the micro-programs popping up within the body of academic degrees we accredit. We’re encouraging programs to develop ways for students to enter, bring in prior learning credit or credentials, and leverage that to achieve maybe some type of badge, micro-certificate or certificate. If they have to leave prior to earning a degree, they leave with something. So, we are ready for this and have been working on it for quite some time. One important thing as a specialized accreditor with a credentialing agency or licensing body is working very closely with them to make sure there aren’t barriers on the licensing side that prescribe curriculum or some type of requirement that often says, ‘You can’t do that.’ We do often hear, ‘My institutional accreditor doesn’t offer a way to do this’ or ‘There’s a barrier by our programmatic accreditor.’ Through townhalls, summits and the education we provide to the public and programs we accredit, we constantly talk about institutional effectiveness, advise folks to build relationships with their registrar, find out what their institutional policies are and how they can do this. We also encourage them not to just focus on credit upon entry, because, for example, in the health professions we have a lot of people already working in the industry. They may be earning badges, receiving professional development through their companies or through industry. They’re earning while they work toward a degree. We encourage programs to have conversations with students through advising and recognize what they are doing while they’re enrolled.

Belle: Many times, people have no clue whether the accreditor will accept something or not. If they don’t see a standard on it, they assume we don’t. We’ve approved many innovative ideas for which we have no standards because we treat them on a one-on-one basis. So, I hope no one in the southern region’s membership that will say, ‘We won’t approve something’ until they’ve at least come to us to see if indeed we will. We have a lot of credit for prior learning, and that’s the way we treat much of the workforce credentialing coming from the non-credit side of the house. Every institution needs a policy on how they translate non-instructional into instructional learning. That’s how many credentials are being approved for us right now. I’ve been here 18 years and can’t think of a time we’ve said no to somebody bringing us an innovative idea. 

Barbara: Accreditors are often accused of standing in the way of innovation. At HLC, the only innovation blocks are at home—it’s not us. So, work with us on what is possible. The most important thing is transparency—reading about something in the press or coming up with a really big idea, getting ready to take it to market and letting us know a month before won’t work. It’s important to talk to us or call upon what’s needed. Admittedly, there are some federal compliance issues that can get in the way, and in some cases there are things that we could do about that as far as lobbying.

Belle: And note,thereare other reasons for saying no like the lack of qualified faculty or space to pull it off.

Angela: We hear programs complain that professional associations are moving in on our space, and because you’re the accreditor, you are not allowing or not creating ways we can innovate. Well, we accredit programs and evaluate quality. We want them to innovate and encourage them to do so. That’s why we have developed some programs to spark innovation, but we don’t have barriers. In the healthcare space, there are 300+ licenses and credentials. They’re offered by non-industry, industry professional associations. All those types of learning experiences are competing with academic programs. The last thing we want to do is be a barrier to innovation with our schools. But I can’t tell you the number of times we hear about being blocked. So, we ask, ‘Why and where did you hear that? And have you really evaluated your policies at your institution?’ Oftentimes we find out they have not. We then try to share best practices. We have a lot of schools large and small, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, from the associate degree to the master’s degree, and we encourage those schools to share what they’re doing, how they do it, and their policies and the specific departments and units they work with to make this happen.

Q. Several credential providers from outside higher education are attending the Summit, which raises a question about credentials▬what they are. What lane do you see yourself in with third-party providers, if any?

Barbara: The way we see it at HLC is that the concept of a credential includes the full range of credentials. This is the way it’s defined by the Credential Engine software system being used. That includes degrees, certificates and smaller units of learning that could lead to a degree. Sometimes higher education is partnering with outsiders to offer a wider array of credentials; sometimes there are third-party providers who do it themselves. But all are responsible for quality.

Kim: One of the things we struggle with most is determining how much currency a non-credit credential or something that lives outside in a third-party space has in a higher education system? To do that, you need to ensure it’s aligned with the institution’s role and mission, with the current quality standards they have, and you’re able to demonstrate there are student learning outcomes aligned with courses taught by the institution. A third-party vendor can offer whatever kind of credential they want, and students certainly have the opportunity to pursue whatever pathway they want. However, if you want that course or competencies embedded in an institution with the associated credit that moves a student along a pathway, then it has to be aligned with the institution’s student learning outcomes. The two complaints I hear most from students and other organizations are ‘My credits won’t transfer’ and ‘HLC gets in the way.’ There is a ton of myths around what HLC or accreditors don’t do. I think about the institutional approach to ensuring consistency across the institution, and that consistency has been acknowledged by whatever accreditor you’re using.

Q. Systems of higher education, are you getting to the program level? Do you provide guidance to your institutions about partnerships?

Deb: As a system, one of our major ways to influence obviously is through system policy. After many years of revision, we reworked our credit-for-evaluation policy, which was first published in the 1960s. This updated version will be reviewed by the SUNY Board in February 2023 and provides for things like guarantee of transfer of credits, suggestions for how faculty can review external credentials for inclusion in their degree programs, which would ensure alignment. The other policy prong is the microcredential policy, which was developed a few years ago. We have that on our website, and it outlines what the process is, what the requirements are and what kinds of things institutions have to consider as they think about offering microcredentials. These include things like stackability, portability, industry alignment and quality. We also stay close to our role with the accreditors. I meet with Middle States regularly as a system representative to make sure we’re on the same page, that we can act together, inform each other and make sure we’re doing what we can to serve our campuses’ best interests. My role with the campuses is to try to help them be in compliance with accreditation standards, and my role with the accreditors is to make sure they understand the campuses’ needs.

The discussion continues in Part 2. For key takeaways, see Part 3 (coming soon).

Author’s Note: Holly Zanville is Co-Lead at Credential As You Go. For more information about their work, please feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.