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Reflections on Credentialing: Past, Present and Future

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on Credentialing: Past, Present and Future
As the conversation around—and demand for—alternative credentials continues to heat up, there are a few big bets happening across the postsecondary ecosystem that could completely transform the way we think about (and recognize) higher learning.

For 10 years, Lumina Foundation has been guided by a goal—and to be frank, we want to influence others to join us in our mission. The goal is this: By 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold a high-quality degree, certificate or other credential.

We based the number on the fact that at least 60 percent of Americans will require education beyond high school to meet workforce needs in the United States.

Ten years ago, we did not fully understand the world of “other credentials,” nor did we anticipate the rapid changes in the marketplace that have pushed so many other providers to award the wide array of credentials now available.

Four years ago, the first National Summit on Credentialing kicked off a national dialogue on credentialing. The goal was to draw attention to the problems associated with fragmented and poorly organized approaches to credentialing at a time of rising demand for talent. Following this, there were many discussions at the national, regional and local levels about these problems—along with a lot of analytic work, report writing, blogging and conference presentations. The focus was primarily around the problems. The robust dialogue moved quickly toward solutions—toward action—and many organizations started or accelerated work in many areas of credentialing.

Three years ago, we created an inventory of all the efforts currently underway to fix the credentialing system. Today, the list exceeds 200. Now, our challenge lies in identifying the highest-priority solutions.  What offers the best bang for our buck? To help answer this question, we can look back to 2015, when we identified nearly 20 actions needed to revamp the credentialing system. After many meetings with stakeholders, we boiled that list of 20 actions down to five:

  1. Establish a common language to explain credentials in terms of the competencies—that is, the knowledge and skills that each credential represents.
  2. Create an open, interoperable data and technology infrastructure that enables us to use technology and real-time data to empower credential users—learners, employers and advisors—to make informed decisions about credential options, pathways, and their value in the labor market.
  3. Ensure the quality of credentials by creating nimble processes for quality assurance.
  4. Improve employers’ use of credentials by developing scalable ways of engaging employers.
  5. Build pathways to equity so that we do not leave out so many Americans, thus depriving them of the economic success linked to credential attainment.

Many organizations and individuals have been working on these action steps, but the work has advanced in some key ways. First, people now better understand the complexity of the nation’s work-and-learn ecosystem and the need for interdependent action. Work must advance in many areas and on many fronts, mostly at the same time.

We believe there are nine areas where we need to move quickly. Think of these as building blocks for a connected work-and-learn ecosystem:

  1. Multiple pathways to credentials and career success.
  2. Transparent and reliable information about what the nation’s estimated 600,000 credentials mean.
  3. Effective systems for verifying and storing earned credentials.
  4. The right bodies and processes for monitoring credential quality.
  5. Employers that effectively hire and upskill for skills and competency.
  6. Career-planning tools to help individuals navigate the ecosystem.
  7. Researchers and data systems to track changes in the ecosystem, especially in serving low-income populations and people of color.
  8. Effective ways of communicating the current and future ecosystem to the media and the public.
  9. The right policies, regulations and incentives at the federal, state and local levels to achieve these first eight building blocks.

If the key building blocks are working together, the vision we hope to achieve is this:

  • Individuals will be able to move more seamlessly through the labor market, using a variety of credentials to communicate the skills and knowledge they acquired in multiple settings (e.g., school, work, service, self-study).
  • Employers will have more detailed and externally validated information to inform their hiring decisions.
  • Schools will be better able to count learning obtained outside academic settings toward a degree or other credential.
  • The public will be informed about the nation’s work-and-learn ecosystem.

Are there some blocks that are at the top of the heap? Really, all nine are vital. But there are two areas where we’re starting to pay more attention, because they pervade all the building blocks:

  1. Equity in Credentialing:

We cannot leave out populations. All Americans must gain credentials of value.

  1. The Changing Role of Assessment:

Individuals often come to employers with so many different types of credentials that have not been well verified, from many different types of providers. At the same time, employers are telling us that certain credentials are no longer necessarily a proxy for the talent they seek. More powerful assessment tools, fueled by developments in artificial intelligence, will enable us all to understand what stands behind our credentials. This is an emerging frontier.

Looking to the future, here are some big bets that our partners are working on:

  • Credential Engine, a new non-profit organization, is executing on its mission to bring transparency to credentials in the US by using a common language for all credentials called the Credential Transparency Description Language. Credential Engine is collecting credentials from all types of providers into an open-platform database, or Registry. Because it’s an open platform, “apps” can be developed to deliver credentialing information to key user groups. This is how we hope to understand the meaning of the nation’s estimated 600,000 credentials.
  • National Student Clearinghouse is a research effort that collects information on who is receiving different credentials into a single database. The hope is to study the return on investment for various credentials (degrees, certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships), and for combinations of them.
  • A third big bet is linking education and workforce data systems.
  • A fourth is The Job Data Exchange (JDX). The idea here is to enable employers to signal the competencies they need, which will encourage the provider market to improve the talent pool.
  • A fifth big bet is working to identify the high-quality credentials in particular states—an effort that will help states better allocate their funding for workforce education and training. The National Skills Coalition is involved here, recommending specific criteria for defining credentials of value.
  • The last big bet involves building assessment tools that can gauge the learning that stands behind our credentials. This is critical.

If all these solutions were in place, we would be better prepared for the future. This could help ensure our populations are not playing poker with their lives as they try to navigate our challenging credentialing systems.

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