By George Lorenzo – Published March 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter
Higher education administrators need to understand the credential landscape, and a great place to start a study on credentials is through a non-profit initiative that began in 2013 called Credential Engine.
A recent 19-minute podcast interview with Credential Engine’s CEO Scott Cheney (titled “Maneuvering the credential maze: 967,734 and counting,”) conducted by WorkingNation’s Editor-in-Chief Ramona Schindelheim, provides a relatively quick and thorough overview of the insanely large and complex world of credentials.
Cheney defines a credential as “anything that is intended to help a person tell somebody else what they’re able to do, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve been trained to do.”
One thing that obviously comes across right away, especially when you consider Cheney’s pragmatic definition, is that there are way too many credentials. As noted in the headline of the podcast, there are close to one million credentials, and growing rapidly, according to Credential Engines’ count estimate, which grew from 334,114 in 2018 and from 738,428 in 2019.
The Credential Registry and Finder
All these credentials can be categorized. You can see a comprehensive list of credential types, who’s offering them, and much more, at the heart and soul of Credential Engine’s efforts – its Credential Registry – located at Credential Finder. Click on the green “+Filter” box in the upper right and you’ll see a list of 18 clickable credentials with succinct definitions, ranging from apprenticeship certificates and associate degrees, to licenses, micro-credentials, and doctorates. If you happen to be searching for information about a specific credential, let’s say an A.A.S. in Software Development, for example, you can type that out in a search box and filter further from there by quality assurance (accreditation status), learning delivery types (online, blended, in-person), time estimate to complete, cost, and several other important categories. Overall, it’s a very sophisticated, non-judgmental credential search categorizing and filtering system (unlike the over-supply of so-called “best” and/or “top” online degree portals, for example, that continue to proliferate on the internet via Google searches and are often click-bait sites that mislead potential students).
Credential Engine works with organizations in the private, public, and government sectors. In short, as noted in the About Us section of the Credential Engine website, they provide “a suite of web-based services that creates, for the first time, a centralized Credential Registry to house up-to-date information about all credentials, a common description language to enable credential comparability, and a platform to support customized applications to search and retrieve information about credentials.”
“We work with organizations that are direct to consumer, whether that consumer is an employer or an educator or a student who are then taking that information and putting it in the hands of their users,” Cheney says. “So, it’s really all about making sure that we’re putting the data in the formats that are most useful in modern web-based tools.”
The Defining Lexicon
The data format Cheney refers to is the open-licensed Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL). As explained in an informative EDUCAUSE “7 things you should know about …” paper, CTDL is a lexicon that defines specific sub-classes of credentials (e.g., degrees, certificates, badges, etc.) and clarifies the structure and purpose of those credentials. The CTDL helps enable owners of credentials detail them – and update them regularly – using common terminology that can be readily recognized by search engines and other credential publishers.”
Cheney adds that credential classifications and meanings can range from concise and simple to prolix and complex. “So, the key is really to have a clear indication of what exactly you’ve learned in that credential. What are the skills and how do you convey that usefully to an employer…”
The Significance to Higher Education
So, how is this important to higher education? Credential Engine has a fact-sheet that briefly addresses this question. In short, by utilizing the Credential Registry (often through a local state agency that has partnered with Credential Engine), college and universities can better position their credentials “for improved visibility among employers, guidance counselors and prospective students,” which will also allow them to “clearly communicate an institution’s value by demonstrating how programs connect to additional credentials and lead to successful careers.”
Credential Engine has current partnerships with 19 states and regions. Several papers are published on the Credential Engine website that help to further explain their business model and state partnerships, including “Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials,” “Making Sense of Credentials: A State Roadmap and Action Guide for Transparency,” and “The Role of States in Credentialing Transparency.” Also see information about their Higher Education Advisory Group.
For more details related to the world of credentials at colleges and universities, see a two-part article series headlined “Evolving Our Credentialing Ecosystem for the Future of Work, Part I and Part II” published by The EvoLLLution, on 01/29/21 and 02/05/21. The EvoLLLution has been consistently covering the topic of higher education credentials rather extensively from a wide scope of angles. Here’s a list of some relevant articles:
- “Inside the Big Confusing Credentialing Tent: A New Mission to Understand Non-Degree Credentials,” published on 06/27/19
- “Embedding Certifications into Bachelor’s Degrees Could Improve Transitions into the Labor Market,” published on 05/25/20
- “The Changing Landscape of Credential Offerings,” published on 02/17/21.
- “Leveraging Credential Innovation to Drive Meaningful Pathways to Degrees and Careers,” published on 03/3/21
- The EvoLLLution also has a section highlighting several articles on the topic of “micro-credentials.”
Building the Credentialing Ecosystem
As noted in the Future of Work Part II piece, Deb Everhart, chief strategy officer for Credential Engine, claims that “when credentials use shared definitions and a common open standard data structure, we can transform education and workforce systems.” She points to a 2016 American Council on Education white paper, titled “Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials” that offers “guidance on how to develop and evolve effective credentialing ecosystems.”
Tracey Taylor O’Reilly, assistant vice president of continuing studies at York University in Toronto (known as Canada’s third-largest university), adds that institutions may formally or informally define alternative credential categories and standards. In a formal process, it might be led through the provost’s office, where each type of credential is outlined: “the criteria, how they fit together, stack together, the meaning, and it’s sometimes passed through the Senate.” In an informal process, “there might be a document that outlines the credential standards, and we ask the institution’s internal stakeholders to follow the same practices. And sometimes we have very little management of alternative credentials, which can lead to wildly different credential practices within an institution.”
Amrit Ahluwalia, The EvoLLLution’s managing editor, concludes in the Future of Work Part II article that in today’s environment, individuals continuously up-skill and re-skill over the course of their lives, “which is incredibly complex, and requires them to shift careers potentially up to 20 times. We can have an unmatched ecosystem if we can create an environment in which we understand learner competencies and learning outcomes that lead to lateral moves to new spaces.” That sounds a lot like the overriding mission of Credential Engine.