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Coming Together to Understand Non-Degree Credentials

Non-degree credentials have gained a lot of traction in the higher education space, but much remains unknown in this relatively new space. The Non-Degree Credentials Research Network (NCRN) at George Washington University has the mandate of leveraging data to discern how best to develop and integrate these credentials. 

Non-degree credentials, including certificates, industry-awarded certifications, occupational licenses, apprenticeships, and badges are a rapidly growing segment of the higher education market. Yet, they have attracted relatively modest interest on the part of the academic and public policy research communities. The Non-Degree Credentials Research Network (NCRN) at George Washington University was launched in 2018 with a mandate to connect researchers who focus their work on non-degree credentials. A new NCRN report summarizes the accomplishments of its Lumina Foundation grant and gaps remaining in our understanding of non-degree credentials. “This report illustrates the major progress that can be made when scholars from different disciplines join together with the stakeholder community to learn from each other and identify opportunities to translate academic research into practical knowledge,” notes Frank Essien, strategy officer at Lumina Foundation.

One of the defining characteristics of the NCRN is the network’s deeply interdisciplinary nature. With researchers representing diverse disciplines, including regional planning, law, economics, sociology, political science and business administration, the network brings together academic researchers and practitioners into dialogues about how to improve research, practice, and policy regarding non-degree credentials. “These interdisciplinary ties between researchers and practitioners formed through the NCRN have created opportunities for researchers to access new sources of data and find new outlets for the dissemination of their work,” says NCRN member Larry Good, president and CEO of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.

While progress is being made on empirical questions related to who earns credentials and what sorts of labor market benefits they experience upon completion, many are still unanswered. Among the most important research questions driving NCRN members’ work is “how are credentials associated with labor market outcomes?” Researchers also want to inform employers about the array of credentials of their candidates in the rapidly changing credentialing marketplace. “This new report underscores the urgent need for research that identifies mechanisms. For example, why employers choose to use or disregard non-degree credentials in the hiring process,” says NCRN member Sean Gallagher, director of the Northeastern University Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Another urgent priority is understanding how the data on non-degree credentials being collected can help individual workers make better education and career decisions. Data from state longitudinal data systems on earnings outcomes associated with certificate programs, for example, are making their way into data products used to aid career advising in schools. Yet, we know that the average underemployed worker seeking a new career trajectory likely does not know where to look to find high-quality labor market information and how to synthesize it to make better enrollment decisions. “While much of the work being done by NCRN researchers is best described as applied research, our research needs with respect to how individuals choose careers and credentials are quite foundational and need to draw on insights from behavioral and social science disciplines,” explains NCRN researcher Michelle Van Noy, director of the Rutgers Education and Employment Research Center. “If we can successfully integrate interdisciplinary sources of knowledge, new mechanisms to deliver valuable information about credentials and careers to those who need it most are well within reach.”

Methodological innovation is another imperative for the field. Survey and administrative data are common sources for the research we do, yet opportunities exist for greater adoption of ethnographic and experimental research methods. Existing survey and administrative data research projects could also make better use of longitudinal data sources that track individuals’ career outcomes after credential completion. Many of the presentations to the NCRN over the past two and a half years (in-person and via webinars) have highlighted the value of new sources of data that are rapidly becoming available to researchers. In addition to public use data that the federal government has made available in recent years, new privately held datasets, such as job posting data from BurningGlass and data on skills and credentials from PayScale and LinkedIn, can be accessed by to answer fundamental questions about the implications of new types of credentials for labor market inequality. The NCRN is proving to be a vital forum for the research community to identify emerging data sources and develop collaborations to effectively leverage such data.

Better theory will also come from the analysis of what has—and hasn’t—worked in other nations. To better understand how U.S. public policy and the practices of our educational institutions and employers differ from those in other parts of the world with respect to non-degree credentials (often referred to as microcredentials outside the U.S.), the NCRN is planning to launch a global network of research networks for credentialing scholars.

In the years to come, the NCRN’s work will continue to focus on strengthening our members’ research through information sharing and collaboration, especially finding ways to develop new studies that leverage emerging data sources. Researchers who share our interests are welcome to contact us to affiliate with the network, and stakeholder organizations are invited to join the stakeholders mailing linked from our website.


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