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Views from Leaders: Top Questions in Incremental Credentialing

Facing a time of unprecedented change and increasing demand for incremental, credentialed learning, higher education must make a push to answer the questions that line the path forward.

At Credential As You Go’s 2023 Fall Conference, four of the initiative’s leaders shared what they see as the two top questions in the incremental credentialing movement. Their responses are abridged from the transcript of the conference panel (video here) and cover a range of issues including credit/noncredit learning, financial aid, data system relevance, collaboration and innovation within the learn-and-work ecosystem, and an incremental credentialing system’s viability, perceived value and popular acceptance.

Nan Travers, Director, Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning, SUNY Empire State University; co-lead, Credential As You Go

My top questions focus on credit and noncredit learning and financial aid. First, how do we develop more credentials that bridge noncredit and credit learning? Some of you are creating credentials that do incorporate both, but I wonder how we can break down the stigma of learning that occurs outside the traditional classroom and create better avenues to formally recognize and connect all learning, bridging workplace learning, experiential learning and classroom learning? How can we help people make those connections across those different ways they learn and recognize that learning with credentials?

Second, how will we fund incremental credentials? What will financial aid look like? We can create as many incremental credential pathways as possible, but if the learner cannot afford to pay we have not helped anyone. Our current financial aid policy still focuses on degrees. And if our incremental credentials are not embedded in degrees, they are not eligible for aid. Most state aid programs are similarly focused around degrees. We do see some promising developments at the state level. In my own state, the New York governor has created some funds to support six to eleven credits. And other states are moving in this direction. We need stronger policy and legislation to ensure all learners can afford an education even if the credentials are smaller than a degree.

Kirk Knestis, principal of Evaluand LLC; senior researcher, Credential As You Go

My questions focus on assessment and data. My first puzzle is about the interaction of three big stakeholder groups that interact in the ecosystem where innovative credentials get implemented. These are the folks who earn a credential, those who provide the credential and are responsible for documenting and awarding it, and those who hire based on the strength of the credential. To reach a tipping point where we collectively have sufficient trust in incremental credentials to represent proficiency suitable for employment, which group (or who within those groups) is first to commit to that idea? Who shoves us into systematically understanding that this proficiency-based assessment way of thinking about credentialing is viable going forward? I picture employers looking to the folks running the education programs and asking them for specific proficiency, while learners look at both parties trying to figure how to demonstrate they have specific skills that employers need and go to the source in higher education that will deliver that. It is unsettling to me how this will reach critical mass that everyone buys into.

The second one keeps me up at night because it gets to the core of trying to answer questions around incremental credentialing: with data. It is ironic that if incremental credentialing approaches realize their potential for truly changing how learner proficiency is documented and demonstrated, the traditional measure of higher education academic success—enrollment, completion, the measures government agencies use to understand if the system is working—become potentially obsolete. How will we, collectively—because we must all be on the same page—measure and understand system-level programming and institutional, innovations in credentialing or initiatives at institutions aimed to grow enrollment? How will we do this, particularly with the more partners we work with? The challenge gets really tough when we understand how diverse these emerging incremental credentialing models are. They range from things that look like traditional bachelor’s degrees but are very different in some fundamental ways to quick, short-term, targeted credentials that identify specific skill sets that stack or assemble into bigger things. The unit of analysis is difficult to untangle. Determining how these things work requires a major change in how we think about data.

Melissa Goldberg, Director of Competencies and Credentials, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce; co-lead, Credential As You Go

A key principle of Credential As You Go is to increase equity, using incremental credentials to increase postsecondary educational accessibility, attainment and employment opportunities for all learners. My question is: What does increasing equity look like, particularly in this evolving legislative and political climate? But there are many related questions. How do we know this is happening? What do we need in place from a systemic perspective—what kind of policy? What funding needs to be available? How about messaging? What about data availability of? How will we know the role of incremental credentials play in helping achieve equity?

The Credential As You Go movement aims to create a fairer higher education system using incremental credentials. We know the movement is gaining momentum. Institutions, state systems of higher education, workforce agencies and some employers are creating and adopting alternative credentials or nondegree credentials or incremental credentials, but there are still so many who are tied to the degree as the only acknowledgement of learning. So, my second question is: How do we engage the various members of the ecosystem—faculty, college administrators, registrars, workforce agencies, the abundance of employers and learners—to truly buy into this concept and systems change movement?

Holly Zanville, research professor, Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy, George Washington University; co-lead, Credential As You Go; lead, Learn & Work Ecosystem Library

Two questions are always top of mind: answering our core research question and navigating the crowded highways of change. First, we’re committed to focusing on research at Credential As You Go because we want to answer this question: Will an incremental credentialing system make a difference and result in a fairer system for all Americans? If we really can move to recognize learning in smaller increments along the educational journey, will that help Americans better find their way through their education and career journeys? Can incremental credentialing help address the some college/no credential problem, with the more than 40 million Americans who attend college but leave with no formal recognition of their learning?

My second question focuses on the crowded nature of the arena in which we work. There is a lot of work in the innovation space. Put another way, the highways are crowded and heavy traffic is difficult to navigate. Many innovators want to get things done; they don’t want to sit in traffic. How then do these many drivers find ways to work together? Can our efforts complement one another’s? What can we do to manage the traffic? Can we collaborate in meaningful ways? This is an issue for the states with which we work most closely. The same relatively small staff must work with many initiatives (often 10, 15 or more than 20 in a state), trying to cover meetings and leverage resources. How can we make sure that incremental credentialing efforts complement the many other innovations and create win-win situations?