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Are Accreditors Ready for an Incremental Credentialing System? Part 2

As credentialing continues to become an important factor in the future of higher education, leaders need to come together to understand the details of what’s required to make sure everything is of high-quality.

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 second 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)

QUESTIONS (Continued from Part 1)

Q.   Are the accreditation standards sufficient to cover the quality of what is going on with these credentials? Are the array of credentials and their quality raising equity concerns?

Belle: If I had the answers to those, I wouldn’t need to form the group we are doing. One of the things mentioned is working with what I call educational entities, non-institutions of higher education that offer educational offerings. If an institution of higher education is going to transcript something on their transcript as having given credit for it, then we hold that institution responsible for the quality of whatever the credential or experience is. So that’s one of the challenges that was mentioned.

Yes, you need to make sure that the faculty who were offering it are qualified faculty, however you define qualified faculty. You need to make sure that the student learning outcomes are identical to something you would accept in your own academic program. That’s where some of our institutions run afoul of getting some of those credits brought into their institution because they can’t do that or because that non-entity doesn’t need it. Of course, that’s our fault, because that’s our standard. If that’s what you’re defining as our fault and we’re standing in the way, then yes we do, because that’s how we define quality. We define quality as people knowing what they’re talking about to offer it, that the things they’re teaching are relevant to whatever the credential is they’re giving. That’s how we do it right now. Your curriculum still has to be approved by the faculty at the institution who is offering it.

That’s what we’re doing right now, dealing with all of the credentials coming through, whether microcredentials or whether they’re coming from outside the institution. That’s what I’m trying to get this committee to tell me, ‘is there a better way to do that? Is there an easier way to do that? Is there a more acceptable way of doing that? And yet assure that the quality is still high quality?’ The other thing is there’s an assumption that institutions of higher education have to accept every credential that’s being offered. They don’t any more than they have to accept any credit from another accredited institution. That’s entirely up to the institution. One of the things we try to do is be less prescriptive — leave it up to the institution to determine what it accepts and how they accept it. They just have to have policies and explain to our satisfaction that it’s going to meet higher education standards.

Barbara:  There’s a lot we can all encourage but we can’t make things happen that we think are overstepping our place. That is really important.

Q.  How can institutions understand this emerging market?

Kim: Workforce in our ecosystem is changing faster than higher education. The speed of change is going so quickly that unless higher education really leans into the application of workforce credentials, counting credits, thinking differently and innovatively around how credentials are offered and honored and things like that, then we risk becoming irrelevant in the entire marketplace.

Angela: It’s important for accreditors to broaden the standards to include non-credit and to include all the other kinds of things that people do. We have been working with our institutions on how to assess their non-credit, and then as they’re looking at doing non-credit to credit pathways, it’s all about the learning outcomes. And it’s all about how those translate from one end into another, whether it’s through articulation or through some type of assessment process. A lot of what we need is already in the standards. We just have to translate it for people to help them understand what they need to do.

Barbara: We’re looking at who do we involve in these discussions. Each of you has set up an advisory board, work with people, and work with the institutions. You have to get outsiders involved. We have involved, for example, Workcred and Credential Engine in HLC work. We have been trying to step outside of the way we normally think.

Q.  Competency-based education is an opportunity built on the idea that as you move forward, you learn something. Is CBE providing examples for quality assurance? 

Belle: We have several institutions who have submitted perspectives for approval for totally competency-based programs. And then they backed out and went to more of a hybrid model. And in asking why did you decide to make the change back, many of them said it was because faculty were afraid they were going to become obsolete, because they didn’t have to stand in front of a class anymore, to teach anything. When we said, but they have to develop the learning objectives, they have to be the ones to assess where the students have met; however, they did not resonate with that. I don’t know that they felt there was more work than it was worth, but most of our institutions that are doing anything competency-based are doing it as a hybrid model (students have to be in person for some courses, and for others can sit for a test).

I think that it is different on one level than credentials because credentials can be competency-based. They can be ‘you come sit in the class for eight hours a day for a week, or three days a week or eight hours or whatever.’ The point is, the institution has to decide whether it’s going to just offer a credential that has nothing to do with any degree that they offer, or take their degrees where they all have already identified student learning outcomes and parcel them out into stackable credentials. That’s the biggest challenge. As we said before, industry is changing so rapidly and the business community is saying, ‘I need all these employees – I don’t need them to have a four-year degree. I don’t even need them to have a two-year degree. I just need them to know how to deal with these widgets or deal with these people, or deal with this team, or whatever it is that they need in a very short period of time’. The community colleges are accustomed to dealing with this. They have advisory committees for every program they have. It’s the senior institutions that are becoming involved in this, making this new.

Some of them are doing a great job because they have had long-standing, practical programs or applied programs where it’s easy to build a credential off of that. For the other, more general education, liberal arts kinds of programs, it’s a little more difficult to come up with some kind of credential. But I think all our institutions are getting into it now. They recognize it’s an enrollment issue because I can bring students back for just one or two classes, and especially our state institutions that are publicly funded based on full-time equivalence. Our role as accreditors is to ensure that no matter what you’re doing, that it’s the same quality you’ve been offering for all the years you’ve been in existence.

Barbara: There are barriers being mentioned by the audience in the chat. CBE is one. Many institutions don’t really know how to assess if learning is taking place—in the transparency of it, and the credit hour.

Q.  Imagine it is 5 years from now. What would we change at the federal level that could make higher education in the U.S. stronger and those outside of higher education offering credentials stronger? An example is Short-Term Pell.

Kim: A reauthorized Higher Education Act would be awesome at some point. But at the local level and how that translates into federal policy, how are we thinking differently about the ways in which students are learning, in general. And there is a point here around the credit hour. How do we look at the credit hour as not just this box to be checked, but how do we think about breaking apart our courses in a way that is more digestible to students?

If you’re taking English 121, for example, can you meet one of those competencies or the equivalent to a credit hour instead of three credit hours? Then how does that translate into a transcript and how does that lead into a degree program or certification option that is eligible for federal financial aid for students who are low income or have a hard time accessing those resources? I think higher education needs to lean into re-imagining this linear pathway to degree programs, and think much differently about the circular nature in which students/learners/earners are approaching education in general.

Deb: Financial aid needs to be reimagined. We have to be thinking differently about how we fund education in this country. And it’s so degree-based, so graduation-rate oriented. This is not helpful. It does not mirror what students’ goals actually are. I don’t know if this is a federal regulation thing, but we need to do more work with our own institutions on translating what grades actually mean. What did students actually learn? I mean, any number of faculty that I’ve spoken with will say, well, industry say they want certain things. Well, they get that from a liberal arts degree. They say, we’re not articulating well what students have actually learned within those degree programs. And a better way to communicate would be extremely helpful.

Angela: I would like to see federal financial aid fund something other than students enrolled in an academic degree program. I would also like to see specialized accreditors accredit something other than higher education programs. Sometimes when we talk about accreditation as accreditors, we don’t think about the industry programs that are out there. Industry plays a huge role in defining quality based on their needs.

In higher education, when someone graduates and they go to work, they are going to be evaluated by industry from that point forward. So, industry plays a huge role in what happens here. Engaging with industry to meet their needs, I think, is super important. One of the ways that can happen is accreditors can accredit other things outside of higher education. Federal financial aid could also fund things other than just students. That may sound unusual for a higher education accreditor to say but that is probably going to open some doors for a lot of people that are closed right now.

Barbara: The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions had this discussion recently about Short-term Pell —there will be a number of impacts if federal policy moves forward.  

Q.  Are we staffed to handle these changes? Are we involving employers and other perspectives in these discussions?

Belle: We’re working on it. I’ve got two positions being requested to help with the workload because of all of the new requests coming in for microcredentials, new certificates and things that are offered. We’re going to be subjected to the labor market just like every other employer is.

Kim: One of the things that’s been super helpful as we’re looking particularly at stackable credentials is to have industry-specific colleagues gather in the same room. We have had general industry represented and general faculty, but don’t find a ton of value in this because I think industry wants to know, ‘how is this going to impact my workforce, how are we going to get the students we need?’ So now we have specific groups targeted towards early childhood, K-12, information technology, or behavioral health. That’s easier to see the ‘what’s in it for me’ and also broadens the perspective of faculty that have been working at the institution. It’s important to have the student voice in these conversations.

Julie Uranis/UPCEA (in the audience, asked to speak to this issue): We have broadly engaged a variety of constituencies within the university system, and also within industry when we did the initial micro-credential policy work. We had continuing education, business, and faculty at the table. For many of us, it is natural. Someone mentioned earlier that a lot of the community college programs have advisory committees so they’re already connected with local industry and other kinds of groups. What we have to remember is that our faculty don’t get out much—that’s not a criticism of them, it’s just a fact of higher education. So, providing opportunities for them to see other ways of thinking about things is tremendously important for the work we’ve been doing. We’ve done a lot of training on the difference between grading and assessment, for example, and there is still a lot of training that needs to be done. Bringing in the right people from the right places makes a huge difference. They need to hear different voices.

Barbara: The reward system in higher education doesn’t necessarily give the faculty an opportunity to get out there, through travel, etc. We encourage co-ops, internships, and apprenticeships of our students, but we don’t always provide that opportunity to faculty. So, the reward systems also need to adjust. This doesn’t just sit on the academic side. Some of you are asking how do I set up an advisory board, how to do engagement? Talk to your alumni office, talk to the fundraising people. People want something they can get in a shorter period of time. They want it stackable in some cases. In other cases, they already have degrees. There are experts who are offering it and they want it to result in something. This is a new continuing education. Yet at many institutions, the continuing education and the rest of the university or college are very separate. Intercampus interaction is critical.

Belle: We have two opportunities for faculty and staff to get to find out what’s going on. First of all, because as you said, Barbara, they don’t often get to travel. And so this is one way they can. We have a Summer Institute, the whole focus of which is how to develop student learning outcomes and how to assess whether they’re effective and what we do with the results after you get them. I think that’s where part of this starts, because faculty often have difficulty translating workforce certifications into credit instruction. That’s what they’re being asked to do—until we come up with a transcript just for workforce, things are still going to be filtered through the credit side of the house.

At our annual meeting, we also broach these subjects and have workshops from institutions that are already involved. Last year the president of Credential Engine came to talk to our presidents about what’s going on out there. We had workshops on which institutions are already involved in that. Part of this is trying to avail yourself of information available on what else is going on out there. The bigger challenge as an institutional accreditor is stepping on the toes of programmatic accreditors when we make too many rules and regulations about how to be responsive for these particular kinds of certifications. The conversations we have when an institution is out of compliance with one of our standards is to share that information with the programmatic accreditor and vice versa, is one of the ways that we stay in communication with each other to know what our institutions are actually doing.

The discussion continues in Part 3 along with some key takeaways, see here.

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.