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The Need for a National Certification Ecosystem

Co-written with Anne Bacon | Director of Strategic Innovation, North Carolina Community College System

The EvoLLLution | The Need for a National Certification Ecosystem
As community colleges begin to deliver a wider range of credentials, including but not limited to degrees, it’s critical that a national certification system be established to provide critical information to all key stakeholders regarding their value and potential.

“Our education must change to meet the challenge of progress all around us.”

These words from Dr. Dallas Herring, an education pioneer in North Carolina, still resonate as they did in 1959 when Dr. Herring recorded them for a film touting the importance of North Carolina’s new Industrial Education Centers (IECs). The late Dr. Herring would have marveled at the evolution of the Industrial Education Centers into today’s comprehensive community college system, the growth of community colleges across the country, and how community colleges are now adapting to address the skills gap and meet the needs of businesses, industry and students through an emphasis on short-term, industry-recognized certifications.

Looking at the statistics, the economic forces driving these shifts become clear. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reports that the recession of 2007-2010 caused a loss of 1.6 million jobs in manufacturing that required a high school diploma or less. During the same time period, 808,000 manufacturing jobs that required an education level of “some college” or an associate’s degree were lost. Only 214,000 manufacturing jobs requiring high school education or less have been recouped through January 2016—13 percent of those lost. However, 724,000 jobs requiring “some education” or an associate’s degree (90 percent) have returned during the same period.[1] This latter category is rich with individuals who have gained some skills through community college-provided training and attained an industry-recognized certification.

In the coming years, short-term training connected to the attainment of industry-recognized credentials validating the skills of the worker will continue to grow in popularity and value among business and industry. Besides the fact that job openings requiring some college or an industry certification have rebounded since the recession, in some cases, individuals can make more money with a certification than with a bachelor’s degree.

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, Director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, noted at a recent Parchment Summit on Innovating Academic Credentials that various one-year computer certificates have yielded earnings of up to $72,000 a year, compared with $54,000 for the average bachelor’s degree.[2]  Armed with information like this, many higher education institutions are racing to market career pathways that include third-party certifications.

In a career pathway, certifications provide an on-ramp or off-ramp for the student. These entrance or exit points are a portable credential of value that the student can utilize should circumstances cause them to drop out of school and delay their education. However, since there is little learning or earning data available on third-party certifications, institutions may or may not be providing an in-demand credential of value to their students. The Army’s COOL (credentialing opportunities on-line) database listed over 1,566 different industry certifications. Only 386 from this list have been accredited or validated as to conforming to industry best practices. The three major certification accrediting groups are the International Certification Accreditation Council, the American National Standards Institute, and the Institute for Credentialing Excellence. However, none of the three accrediting groups use or report on the economic value of the accredited certifications to the student or worker.

Further complicating the role of certifications is the drive by state and national education initiatives to create a more credentialed workforce. Examples:

  • In Tennessee’s Drive to 55, the state’s governor has called for 55 percent of Tennesseans to be equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
  • North Carolina’s governor has set the goal of 67 percent of working adults obtaining education or training beyond a high school diploma by 2025.
  • Oregon has a 40-40-20 plan, in which it strives for 40 percent of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent with an associate’s degree or postsecondary credential and 20 percent with a high school diploma or equivalent.

These states did not set these bold goals in isolation; the National Governor’s Association launched an initiative in 2013-14 to focus on postsecondary credentials. As then-NGA chair Governor Mary Fallin (Oklahoma) said, “a postsecondary degree or relevant workforce certification is the ‘new minimum’ for the future workforce to meet the demands of the emerging job market and have access to a middle-class life or beyond.”[3]

And other national organizations have contributed to momentum for setting and reaching education, training and credential goals. For example, the Lumina Foundation set a goal as part of its first strategic plan in 2009 that 60 percent of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. This has morphed into Lumina’s “Goal 2025” initiative.

These states and national organizations have set admirable and ambitious education goals, but have done so without considering that not all education and credentials translate into labor market value or are strategic relative to the economic vitality of the states’ business and industry.

What is the result of this confused and convoluted certification environment that education institutions have found themselves in? A growing contingent of confused students and parents, frustrated industry and business owners, and often-criticized education administrators who are trying to please a variety of stakeholders including students, parents, industry, board members and lawmakers. What is being done to remedy the situation and provide better information and data to college administrators, students, parents, and the business community?

Examples of key credentialing initiatives:

1. Certification Data Exchange Project

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), in cooperation with multiple national, state and private partners, is working to expand and improve data exchange between industry certification organizations and state longitudinal data systems. Partners include US Department of Education (Office of Career and Technical Education); CompTIA (representing the IT industry); higher education groups from Iowa, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, Washington, Florida, and District of Columbia; Manufacturing Skills Standards Council; and the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

 2. Workforce Credentials Coalition

The coalition is working to support multiple certification data-sharing and workforce analytics projects, with the goal of fostering the development of a single portal for all third-party certification data. The coalition is a voluntary group of community college systems, districts, and individual colleges (formed by California and the NC Community College Systems); the Workforce Data Quality Campaign; ACTE; New America, Pearson, National Student Clearinghouse, Manufacturing Institute, and Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

 3. Connecting Credentials

Led by the Lumina Foundation, this initiative brings together 106 national organizations and more than 2,500 stakeholders in an effort to create a better credentialing system that incorporates all postsecondary credentials—badges and other microcredentials to advanced academic degrees. The initiative has introduced a beta Credentials Framework that uses competencies and a common language to make sense of different types of credentials.

 4. Credential Transparency Initiative

George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) and Workcred—an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and Southern Illinois University (SIU) are leading this initiative to create greater coherence and transparency in the U.S. credentialing marketplace.

 5. Pipeline Data Project

Manufacturing Institute, National Student Clearinghouse, Census Bureau, and several state community college systems (North Carolina, California, Virginia) are partnering to begin to connect certification attainment data to occupation and wage data.

Many other important credentialing initiatives exist. However, the five above stand out in how they seek to establish a forward-looking credentialing system that connects the dots between education, business, and the public. These will not only provide accurate and timely information to parents, students, and adult workers, but also provide information to college administrators so that they can make programming decisions to simultaneously meet employer and student needs.

The credentialing system that will result from the work of these kinds of initiatives will allow community colleges to truly evolve into the system that Dr. Herring and other mid-century educational innovators across the country envisioned.

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[1] Carnevale, A., Jayasundera, T., & Gulish, A., America’s Divided Recovery: College haves and Have-nots,

[2] Carnevale, A., Credentials and competencies: Demonstrating the Economic value of Postsecondary education,

[3] America Works: Education and Training for America’s Jobs, National Governors Association,

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