Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials

By Deborah Everhart, Evelyn Ganzglass, Carla Casilli, Daniel Hickey, and Brandon Muramatus – Published 2016 in American Council on EducationSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

QD featured 46 pages covering seven key areas: what credentials are, their collective impact, key stakeholders, dimensions of quality, the state of credential types, questions related to analyzing their potential future, and a call to action. Here’s our synthesis of this important document. 

What Are Credentials?
In addition to associate, bachelor’s and graduate degrees, there are diplomas, certificates, certifications, licenses, and badges (more definitions at Credential Finder: click on the upper-right  “+Filter” green box). As an umbrella term, defined in 2015 by the Lumina Foundation, a credential is “a documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard.”

Collective Impact of Connecting Credentials
“There is widespread agreement that clarification of the U.S. credentialing ecosystem is necessary and timely,” wrote the authors of QD. They referred to numerous initiatives out to help achieve that clarification, such as a 2016 to 2018 initiative called Connecting Credentials, by Lumina and the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. Connecting Credentials generated a dialogue between thousands of individuals and 121 cosponsors on “the problems posed by our nation’s diverse and fragmented credentialing ecosystem.” The initiative set out to ensure that credentialing “could better meet the demands for talent and individual opportunity.” QD also referred to the “Credential Transparency Initiative,” which is now Credential Engine, the creator of the Credential Finder. Additional credential-clarifying-ecosystem-oriented initiatives referred to in QD included:

Key Stakeholders
For the sake of brevity, there are basically four types of stakeholders: credential earners (those who attain credentials), credential issuers (organizations that award credentials to earners), credential consumers (use credentials to make judgements and decisions about the qualifications and competencies of earners for specific purposes), and credential endorsers (traditionally accrediting bodies or independent bodies who vouch for quality).

“As credentials proliferate, the needs for third-party endorsements increases.”

Six Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials
The following six dimensions, outlined in brief, are “useful ways of discussing credentials and how they can be improved,” and each of the dimensions illuminate specific aspects of connectedness:

  • Transparency – Are the competencies represented clearly defined?
  • Modularity – Does the credential have components that connect to each other and to larger socioeconomic and lifelong learning aspirations? 
  • Portability – Does the credential connect to multiple purposes and opportunities?
  • Relevance – Does the credential prepare “earners for further education/training or additional credits as part of a lifelong learning continuum?”
  • Validity – Does the credential reveal meaning and value that connect to opportunities?
  • Equity – Does the credential help the disadvantage connect to opportunities and the benefits of lifelong learning?

Describing the State of Credential Types
This was the longest section of the QD that described how each of the credential types addressed the six dimensions. Again, to describe, in brief:

Academic Degrees

  • Transparency – Have clear levels of progression and definitions of competencies.
  • Modularity – Can be stacked to lead to higher-level degrees. 
  • Portability – Have value and are recognized as a requirement for many jobs. 
  • Relevance – “Are generally relevant in preparing earners for lifelong learning, employment, and contributions to communities of practice.” 
  • Validity – Are validated by third party accreditors and considered legitimate.
  • Equity – Degree earners typically “do better in terms of employment, earnings, and other outcomes than those without degrees.” 

Certificates

  • Transparency – Should be transparent in their structure and requirements.
  • Modularity – Some are modules within degrees, and some include opportunities to earn one of more industry certifications.
  • Portability – Some are transferable to degrees, and some are not credit-bearing and therefore not transferable to degrees.
  • Relevance – Relevance to labor market demands can be highly variable, and stakeholders often do not understand their pertinence/value.
  • Validity – Generally have less validity than degrees, although employers who understand specific certificates may consider them relevant.
  • Equity – Provide access to good jobs and can be a steppingstone to further postsecondary education.

Certifications

  • Transparency – Acceptance by employers is not always clear, and quality assurance mechanisms supporting certifications are often not transparent.
  • Modularity – Sometimes are modules within occupational certificates and degrees. 
  • Portability – Some have limited acceptance and are generally not transferable to other academic credentials.
  • Relevance – Industries oversee and validate certifications, and some are connected to governmental agencies or trade associations. 
  • Validity – Demonstrate a predetermined set of knowledge, skills and abilities related to a profession.
  • Equity – Required to engage in professions and help holders of current certifications be more marketable for open positions.

Licenses

  • Transparency – States designate professions and trades that require a license to practice and clearly delineate criteria for a given license. 
  • Modularity – Sometimes modules within academic credentials.
  • Portability – Generally not transferable to academic credentials.
  • Relevance – Determined by best practices of a given profession.
  • Validity – Verified by applying and through documentation supporting the education, experience and knowledge of the applicant.
  • Equity – Holder is more marketable for open positions.

Badges

  • Transparency – Are transparent by design and have built in metadata to reveal learning experiences, but issuer decides whether badge criteria are open or closed. 
  • Modularity – “Can be sized according to the needs of issuers, earners, and consumers.”
  • Portability – Are easily ported between organizations and institutions. 
  • Relevance – Are relevant in context-specific ways.
  • Validity – Issuing organization and badge content can be verified on a case-by-case basis.
  • Equity – “Can be earned in a variety of locales and environments by people with widely varying abilities and resources.” 

Challenge Questions for Analyzing Credentials and Visualizing Potential Futures
Some questions as they relate to the six dimensions:  

  • Transparency – Are competencies clearly defined and mapped to specific job requirements? Is the reporting on career and further education paths of graduates accurately reported? Is the transcript machine-readable to facilitate searching and filtering via systems?
  • Modularity – Does the credential have modular units, and can they be applied to other credentials? Is the credential stackable? Can students recognize any milestones within the credential related to furthering their learning and careers?
  • Portability – Are there any relationships with other credentials? Does the credential honor prior learning credit? What kind of transferability does the credential have with other education providers? 
  • Relevance – What kind of value does the credential hold? How is the value communicated, and how can it be improved? Does the credential adequately apply to specific job-relevant skills and employment readiness?
  • Validity – Is the credential validated by third parties? Are the credential’s competencies well-articulated and recognized by industry organizations? 
  • Equity – What kind of socioeconomic and education mobility does the earner ultimately gain? Are there sufficient on-ramps and support mechanisms that enable access for everyone?  

A Call to Action
The QD paper offered a wide range of ideas and questions that were meant to catalyze meaningful dialogue among educators; the labor market; states; students; and other stakeholders, such as non-profit and for-profit workforce and economic development companies and organizations. It advises higher education to “identify your credentialing ecosystem stakeholders, articulate the problems they encounter when credentials are not connected, use the challenge questions to analyze and discuss the current state of your specific credentials with regard to the quality dimensions, and then establish a realistic plan and timeline for developing more valuable, robust, and connected credentials that reflect your new approach.”