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A nationally recognized incremental credentialing system may help improve employment outcomes, improve transparency and integrate industry credentials to standard degree systems.
A nationally recognized incremental credentialing system may help improve employment outcomes, improve transparency and integrate industry credentials to standard degree systems.

The United States needs a postsecondary system that captures and validates uncounted learning to enable all individuals to earn recognition for what they know and can do. Credential As You Go is working toward that vision, embarking on a movement to inform and facilitate the development and adoption of a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system to improve education and employment outcomes for all learners. Such a system will build on efforts to create greater transparency of credentials across education and industry, while integrating industry credentials and prior learning into our degree system. It will include developing new student learning records that incorporate learning acquired outside the traditional classroom, creating employer hiring systems based on hiring for skills and using transparent language and data structures to increase interoperability among our array of credentials—degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, badges, micro-credentials and other non-degree credentials.

To help guide the movement, Credential As You Go assembled a National Advisory Board made up of nearly 130 people. These members represent many stakeholder groups, such as state systems of higher education, postsecondary institutions and third-party credential providers, employers, quality assurance organizations, philanthropy, policy, research and others that comprise the learn-and-work ecosystem.

What many people don’t know is why Board members are so committed to the incremental credentialing movement. They have unique personal stories fueling their commitments—like Erica Barreiro, Chief Learning and Diversity Officer at Nusenda Credit Union, who previously served as Future of Work Strategist at Central New Mexico Community College, where her work included building the skills-based learn-and-work ecosystem.

When I started my career as a high school social studies teacher, I was assigned to teach two classes in the PSL program. They told me PSL was an acronym for Preparing Students for Life. This sounded pretty great until I learned all the students in the program were labeled at-risk, and their best option for graduating was to be in a program that prepared them for life rather than college. I was outraged that some students had received and internalized the message they were not college material—as if they were lacking rather than beholden to a deeply flawed educational system. Since then, my career has been guided by my commitment to help expand educational access and success to historically marginalized learner populations.

We see many community college students taking 1-2 courses at a time to balance their education with their work and family commitments—persisting 5-10 years to complete just an associate degree. And for those years of commitment to advancing their education, they often have nothing to show an employer that would improve their earning potential. This is one of the reasons incremental credentialing is so important.

Creating such a system is achievable given the disruption higher ed is experiencing. With online learning, students have more choice for institutions to enroll in, and many students are looking for pathways that allow them to learn, then work, then learn some more to advance in their work opportunities. Technology is also enabling employers to utilize skills-based hiring, rather than relying just on degrees to sort qualified candidates. Additionally, there is greater recognition that degree-centric hiring is not yielding the diversity of employees companies are seeking.

Then there is Wendi Copeland, Chief Partnership Officer at Goodwill Industries International, the leading nonprofit provider of job training programs and placement services in North America. Copeland leads professionals who leverage relationships and resources to advance Goodwill’s mission and social enterprises while fueling systems change.

I was a 21-year-old mom with two years of college working for poverty wages when my boss’s boss said, “You need to finish your degree.”

I sheepishly responded, “Yeah, I know. Right now, though, I need to work and raise my son—I will finish one day.”

“Now is the time—we’ll pay for your college and work out your schedule. You need that degree, and we need your abilities on our team.”

When my childcare fell through and a professor balked at my kid in tow, my boss’s boss took my son on bike rides. She made my first degree possible, which made the next degree possible, which made my career a transformational reality for generations of my family. My life, my son’s life and my grandsons’ lives are forever changed.

Today, many dare-to-dream learners are working parents. For skill-building and degree-earning to become a reality, we need more than financial aid (though we often need that too). We need stepping stones—potentially earn-as-you-grow career credentials—that quickly improve prospects of economic mobility for ourselves and our households. We may need success guardrails such as wraparound services that help stabilize housing, transportation, childcare, nutrition, physical and mental health and more, to help us manage our lives as we acquire qualifications that employers value. This transformation is already being achieved in scattered places around the country, and tiny points of hope are being realized. Our opportunity is to take the best of what can be and make it available to all who activate their courageous dreams. Let’s be like my boss’s boss. Let’s do this.

Nicole McDonald is Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success Strategies at the University of Houston and leads operations for Houston Guided Pathways to Success, a consortium of thirteen public community colleges and universities focused on improving outcomes for all learners by scaling and innovating upon evidence-based practices.

I believe all learners deserve a high-quality education they can take anywhere. This is my philosophy of postsecondary learner/student success.  It guides my work every day.

I’m the product of Ohio’s public education system. From kindergarten through college, my learning journey benefitted from high-quality instruction; the support of teachers, faculty, and administrators; and critical co-curricular learning experiences. My college internship in the Ohio State Senate led to my first job after college in state government. My leadership experiences in Student Recreation, the Student Government Association, the Union Activities Board, the Black Student Union, and campus work in the university’s administration wing—combined with graduate learning—provided the foundation for my nearly 20-year career in postsecondary education.

I figured out how to connect the dots, to leverage academic courses and leadership experiences into a job, and build on those experiences with additional learning. Without intentional, streamlined systems to recognize and credential learning as you go, connecting the dots is difficult for many learners. The ability to meet the demand for talent in the U.S. rests largely on postsecondary education’s capacity to recognize and credential learning. But that has not occurred for more than 20 million Americans who have some college credits but lack a quality credential.

Another 60 million Americans (25-64) are effectively locked out of the system, with little or no realistic chance to apply valuable skills to obtaining a quality credential to further their employment and education. If we want to bring about real change, we must catalyze action around the question: What is required to strengthen the role of postsecondary education as change agents in closing educational, economic, and opportunity gaps in short-order? One answer is recognizing learning—connecting the dots more directly with employers and credentialing skills that create opportunities for every learner to fully participate in 21st Century life, work, and communities.

And there’s Wendy Sedlak, Strategy Director for Research & Evaluation at Lumina Foundation, where she establishes and synthesizes evidence and data to advise Lumina’s strategic direction and documents effective practices and policies to inform the foundation and the field.

Many of the skills and competencies I have today were gained through different jobs and volunteer opportunities over the years. My job in hotel housekeeping, for example, taught me time management, attention to detail and customer service. Serving as a personal care worker required me to be well organized and reliable, an excellent communicator with strong people skills and demonstrate a compassionate attitude. And my role as a fundraiser for my college’s telefund helped me learn resilience, self-motivation and how to stay positive in the face of adversity.

As I have continued along my learn-and-work path, what I am struck by is that so much of what has propelled me forward is due to the symbiotic relationship between education and work. I have needed traditional credentials to garner the interest of a potential employer, but it was the competencies mastered and experiences gained through work and service that employers valued most. In our current educational system, unfortunately, it is contingent upon the learner to bring those skills to the forefront. If higher education operated in an incremental manner, capturing and recognizing learning through a variety of formal and informal platforms, students could more easily share that proficiency with others. And they would be better supported along their learn-and-work journey.

Because of my privilege, I have benefitted from a degree-centric higher education system, but it is an inequitable system that does not serve our communities well. For learners forced to leave school due to jobs, family obligations or finances, we often fail to recognize what they’ve learned. Incremental credentialing programs—especially those that center on quality and equity—can and should play a key role in postsecondary education.

All these Board members have something in common: unique personal experiences that drive their commitment to serve. Credential As You Go will continue to collect the stories fueling the incremental credentialing movement because stories matter──in addition to the job titles, career experiences, and credentials on a resume.

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