Revealing and Comparing Credential Quality So Learners & Employers Can Make Wise Choices

Feature Article – By George Lorenzo – Published March 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

Editor’s Note: We have been roaming around the world of credentials for several weeks now. In that spirit, we offer a second article about Credential Engine (initially described in Issue #4). In this article, we go deeper into the origins and current status of Credential Engine and how this important credential-transparency project is moving forward in its relationships with states and educational institutions.  

When making vacation plans, many of us go online to a site like Expedia to book our travel reservations (car, hotel, airfare). Expedia allows us to pick and choose by comparison shopping what fits best within our budget and desires. The same holds true for a slew of products we search for on Amazon. With a little bit of searching know-how and critical thinking skills, we can pretty much pick and choose what we want and how and when we’d like it to be delivered.

But when it comes to one of the most important things in our lives – discovering and choosing where to get educated and earn a credential – there’s no awesome and transparent online comparison tool to help us. “We make it easier for you to spend money [for a consumer product or service] than we do to help people figure out how they should be spending money to actually improve their lives [e.g., through the pursuit of a value-based credential],” says Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine. “That is just a societal wrong that needs to be fixed.” He explains that there are a million credentials in the marketplace, and how there’s an increasingly growing concern coming from students who are questioning the time and cost related to higher education. “I think it’s important that those institutions put out, in very accessible and very transparent and very comparable ways, the richness of information about what they offer and the value of it,” Cheney says.  

Cheney and staff, along with their board, advisory group, and funders, have been working on a “fix” since summer 2013 when Credential Engine got its start in a four-year proof-of-concept research project. On December 7, 2017, that research project resulted in Credential Engine publicly launching as an independent nonprofit. 

Credential Engine is analogous to NASA’s Moon-to-Mars endeavor, but in the world of credentials. They are the creators of a sophisticated credential transparency open-source Web technology (Credential Transparency Description Language, or CTDL) that is the driving force behind a Credential Finder Registry that has enormous potential to change how employers, educators, governmental agencies, and communities can collaborate and publish free publicly accessible widgets and apps (pushed out via extensive amounts of credential data in the registry) that will ultimately allow individuals to make value-based decisions about their educational investments.   

Lots and Lots of Data
On that launch day in December 2017, Credential Engine announced that it would “gather credentialing data on a large scale, work with vendors to develop new applications to leverage that data, and launch international outreach efforts to eventually map the global credential landscape.” Their registry had already housed over 1,500 credentials from more than 170 organizations. Today, the registry houses linked open data from more than 700 institutions, with almost 23,000 credentials, 760 competency frameworks and 47,000 competencies, 550 assessments, and 500 learning opportunities. 

“Overall, this is hundreds of thousands of data points richly describing credentialing ecosystems,” Cheney says. “In those early days we wanted to focus attention on initial growth of the registry itself to get a number of institutions, systems and states to engage with the idea of publishing, transparency, and using linked open data.  And it has worked, as more partners have seen the value of credential transparency and have joined in our efforts. 

“Over the past two years, we’ve expanded and balanced the focus to include rich ecosystems of data about the credentials that are being published,” Cheney adds. “So, that means working to not only get credentials published but also include information on specific competencies, quality indicators, outcomes, pathways, transfer information, etc.  The result is that we are seeing rich growth in the amount and type of data that shows the complexity of the market. And a number of states and partners are in the process of mapping their data to publish thousands more credentials, competencies, and the like.  So, the numbers are growing, as is the richness of the data about credentials.”

Where It All Began
Credential Engine was developed through a Credential Transparency Initiative that ran from August 28, 2013 until September 30, 2017. The initiative fielded researchers from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP); Workcred; Southern Illinois University; and a group of higher education, business, and government advisors.  They built the credential finder registry prototype and pilot.

Several articles and reports came out of the initiative, one of which was a highly informative report titled “Creating and Communicating Critical Information about Workforce Credentials,” by GWIPP Research Professors Stephen Crawford and Robert Sheets, published in 2015 as chapter seven in the book “Transforming U.S. Workforce Development for the 21st Century.” It explains how and why the initiative, which was initially funded by a Lumina Foundation grant to GWIPP, in partnership with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), built the CTDL. In short, Crawford and Sheets laid out a long-standing lack of clarity and confidence credentialing conundrum and offered three complimentary strategies for solving this problem:

  1. Develop more standardized language that defined “the key features or ‘descriptor’ of credentials and credentialing organizations for promoting transparency, portability, trust, and quality.” 
  2. Align and harmonize “accreditation systems and industry endorsement systems, as well as related credentialing reform initiatives attempting to improve QA [quality assurance] in the credentialing marketplace.”
  3. Create a public-private credentialing registry “to provide more comparable and trustworthy information to the credentialing marketplace based on standardized terminology and related frameworks.”   

“Finally, transparency requires guides and tools that can present comparable information in usable ways. A sound approach will promote the development of guides and tools for employers, students, and other stakeholders who may use this information to improve credentialing quality. This could involve using techniques like those employed in national and state “open data” initiatives in health care and transportation. These initiatives would provide applications developers with free access to a rich data infrastructure to create a wide variety of applications (“apps”) for different types of stakeholders.”

A Large New App Land in the Making
So, a question that comes up is where are all these apps? The answer is they are under development, and, according to Cheney, getting very close to launching in the next several months in a number of states that have partnered with Credential Engine. 

The first state to work diligently with Credential Engine was Indiana in 2017. A report about how Indiana got started and progressed was published in 2018, titled “Fixing the Credential Chaos: A National Tool and State Application,” by Ken Sauer and Stephen Crawford, which is chapter 20 in the book “Investing in America’s Workforce: Improving Outcomes for Workers and Employers, Volume 3: Investing in Systems for Employment Opportunity.” For example, Indiana is developing search and compare apps, based on the background data they have and continue to put into the Credential Engine registry. These apps will crawl through public and private education majors, certificates, and licensing programs throughout the state; high school dual credit and core transfer programs; apprenticeships; next-level jobs in high-priority, high demand jobs; career exploration and ROI applications; and digital credentials via an eTranscript initiative in partnership with Parchment, Inc. 

What States are Doing
More information is available at Credential Engine’s state partnerships web page where you can click on a map that highlights the 20 states they are currently working with and read their “Success Stories.” For example, Alabama is designing “the Alabama College and Career Exploration Tool (ACCET) to serve as a digital resume and comprehensive learner record to display verified, industry-recognized credentials and competencies mastered through a comprehensive learner record.” New Jersey’s “scale-up project is focused on publishing information about programs and credentials that are offered by private career schools and correspondence schools that wish to provide training within New Jersey, with larger statewide goals aimed at streamlining the private career school application process and improving the ability to collect and report program outcomes for compliance and informed decision making.” 

According to Cheney, Indiana should have their user-friendly-designed app interfaces up and running by July, while Alabama is in their developmental phases, and New Jersey’s app interface is due to be up and running by end of May. 

The Big Boil Boon
If all this sounds a bit over the top, especially considering that more states will be launching their apps in the near future, and within all these states are many diverse and differentiated education and workforce development agencies and bureaus, all with their specific agendas to create apps – well, yes, indeed, it is.  

Crawford explains that during the Credential Transparency Initiative early research phase, one educator posited that this was an endeavor akin to trying to “boil the ocean.” Crawford adds, however, that “it’s a beautiful project in concept, but it’s also operationally. Credential Engine has made extraordinary progress with the creation of the CTDL. Whatever happens to Credential Engine will be a major contribution. It’s being used for other purposes already.”  

Holly Zanville, research professor and co-director of George Washington University’s Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy, was also there from the onset. “It seems so long ago when Lumina Foundation, where I served as a strategy director, awarded a grant to GWU to support the Credential Transparency Initiative. We had been noting the changing credentialing landscape – growing number of credentials awarded by non-higher education institutions. Large companies were awarding credentials, industry associations were stepping up efforts to award their own certifications, third-party groups were awarding certificates, and the badging movement was taking off. Just a few years later, Credential Engine was borne. Many of us thought this was the type of ‘highway-building’ critically needed to transform our education and workforce systems.”

Zanville points to two especially noteworthy signposts of progress in this work. “One has to be the significant progress in developing and disseminating a common (translatable) language for describing all credentials.  A second is the progress in strengthening our education and workforce systems through state-level action. More than 20 states are using their increasing knowledge about credentials offered in their state to inform their education and workforce systems – such as improving their Eligible Training Provider Lists. This is major progress in a few short years.”

In relation to the ocean boiling comment, Cheney says it’s been said to him “countless times. My answer is, ‘yes,’ because you can try to boil, starting off with the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but it’s still a really big body of water. And if you start boiling the pond on the side of it, why are you boiling a pond? Let’s go boil the ocean.”