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The Rising Urgency for Non-Degree Credential Quality Standards

The EvoLLLution | The Rising Urgency for Non-Degree Credential Quality Standards
Higher learning institutions must take it upon themselves to (re-)examine their micro-credential offerings and ensure they offer direct benefits (e.g. by way of secure employment) to their students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic and unprecedented impact on education and work. By early May, the unemployment rate was nearing 15%, and students at colleges and universities around the country were finishing up their semesters remotely.  Life has certainly changed for all Americans in a drastic way.  As we start to think about what happens when the country awakens from this economic coma, education and training may become an important pathway back into the labor market.

During a recession, there is often a surge in attention to and enrollment in traditional higher education, but will that be the response this time around? The mounting financial pressures of student debt and emerging skepticism about the value of higher education, combined with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression could prompt more students to seek out cheaper and faster alternatives to a college degree. Dislocated workers might also begin to look for quick, less expensive paths back to employment. Non-degree credentials may be part of the answer.

While non-degree credentials were of great interest prior to the pandemic, they might be even more important post-recession for workers and students, post-secondary education providers and policy makers and states.  As a result, systems and approaches to measuring and ensuring quality of non-degree credentials are more important now than ever. Non-degree credentials include certifications, occupational licensure and apprenticeships, as well as badges and other newly emerging micro-credentials.

Prior to this downturn, over one quarter of U.S. adults already had some type of non-degree credential, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics[i]. There are over 300,000 non-degree credentials in the marketplace, offered by a wide range of organizations including educational institutions, private training providers, industry associations and unions.[ii]

The non-degree credential marketplace currently operates with no standard for assessing quality, and as a result, there is a great deal of confusion as to what makes a quality credential and how consumers can tell.  Learners invest significant time and money in non-degree credentials, so it is important that they know what they are buying and what will give them the biggest return on investment by providing an educational pathway and another one into the labor market. There is thus greater urgency for states and institutions to establish a coherent approach to ensuring non-degree credential quality and making sure people know about it.

To guide these efforts, we at Rutgers University’s Education and Employment Research Center developed a framework to guide thinking about the quality of non-degree credentials based on four key components. This framework can be used by institutions and policy makers as they think about how to create a high-quality system and/or policy around non-degree credentials.

Define through design

Credential design encompasses the attributes that define the credential in terms of its content, how it is attained, and how it can be used–factors usually decided by the credential grantor. These attributes can be measured through the credential itself and include the relevance of its competencies for career and educational goals; appropriateness of the instructional processes and/or assessment processes; the degree to which the credential is stackable and portable; the degree of transparency about the credential and its contents; and the accessibility and affordability of the credential. Taken together, these factors provide an indication of whether a credential has a quality design.

Knowledge and skills

Beyond the design of a credential are the demonstrated competencies or skills and knowledge that the individual credential holder possesses after attaining the credential. This component of quality refers to the measurement of the actual competencies the individual credential holder possesses, as opposed to competencies the credential intends to convey as outlined by the credential design.

Market recognition

Quality credentials must have recognition on the market. Another component of quality are the market processes through which a credential comes to be recognized and have currency in the world, based on the competencies it marks. This includes transparency initiatives that convey information on the credential; general awareness of the credential and its grantor; endorsements and validations by trusted organizations; state regulations that require its use; employer hiring policies and practices where it is preferred or required for hiring; and educational institutions’ recognition of learning that recognize and translate its value into academic credit. These market processes are often overlooked but are essential to the review, assurance and promotion of quality credentials.

Learner outcomes

Outcomes of value are the tangible benefits to possessing the credential for individuals and society. For individuals, these include a range of educational, employment and social outcomes, such as the traditional path of students continuing with their education, becoming employed, having increased earnings and accruing better health and well-being. For society, these include both outcomes for employers such as more efficient hiring, better retention of workers and greater diversity in their workforce, and outcomes for society at large such as, improved public safety and reduced inequality.

Together, these four components form a comprehensive approach for understanding and ensuring quality among non-degree credentials. Policymakers and practitioners can use this framework to guide current efforts to review existing non-degree credential offerings and carefully consider which are of high quality and which may need to be improved. While more data are needed to fully assess non-degree credentials across these components, efforts are beginning to make more information available, and these efforts are necessary to advancing. Conversations about quality can begin to push forward the movement to tame the academic wild west and, in doing so, provide greater clarity to learners about where to best invest their time and money. In the post-COVID pandemic world, providing this guidance and clarity is a more of an imperative than ever.



For more details on the non-degree credential quality framework, visit our website at:

[i] Cronen, S., McQuiggan, M. & Isenberg, E. (2018). Adult Training and Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016, Adult Training and Education: Results from the National Household Education Survey, Washington DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

[ii] Credential Engine (2019). Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials, Washington DC: author.


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