New Directions for Non-Degree Credentialing Research

By Kyle Albert and Stephen Crawford – Published Spring 2021 by the GW Institute of Public PolicySubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The GW Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) at George Washington University’s Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy (PSCWP)  has been conducting deep research on nondegree credentialing through a generous grant from Lumina Foundation, called the Non-Degree Credentials Research Network (NCRN). Here we summarize an informative report published by NCRN this spring. 

A large and diverse network of researchers, colleagues and advisors have developed and moved NCRN forward. Since its start in 2017, many associated projects and initiatives have come together through a wide variety of face-to-face and online meetings and conferences.

Research Clusters
From this combination of convenings and numerous collegial and scholarly research projects, five clusters of research have been specified:

  • Appreciating the Landscape of Credentials – Relates to “the overall distribution and diversity of NDCs [Non-Degree Credentials],” as well as understanding “particular fields and variation in the nature of NDCs between fields of study.”  
  • Local Contexts – Looks at choices made by university-based extensions, wage differences correlated with certifications and licenses in urban and rural areas, and apprenticeships in metropolitan areas. 
  • Credentials as Regulation – Includes examining NDCs as “potential barriers to employment and advancement in the labor market” along with “the potential for occupational licenses to limit opportunities for labor market entry.” 
  • The Impact of Non-Degree Credentials on Socioeconomic Inequality – In short, this cluster examines how NDCs affect the overall labor market in relation to inequality and subpopulation differences. 
  • New Pathways and the Unbundling of College Degrees – Focuses on how NDCs can connect to degree-granting institutions. Emphasizes the shaping of career pathways by organizations serving workforce intermediaries and how apprenticeships can help disadvantaged learners. Also looks at the future of credentials.
  • Credentials for Young Workers – Deals with how NDCs “fit into the educational and life paths of relatively young students.” In particular, apprenticeships are often examined within this context. 

Lesson Learned Thus Far
In brief, lessons learned to date by the research community include:

  • We still need a universally accepted taxonomy of credentials.
  • The scholarly research community needs high-impact dissemination outlets that are recognized by academic institutions.
  • Stakeholders want to talk to researchers. Researchers are curious about what stakeholders have to say.
  • Projects aimed at improving the linkage of data in non-degree credentialing attainment to larger labor market datasets are promising.
  • Employers remain a poorly understood actor in the credentialing marketplace.
  • Federal public-use data is helpful but insufficient to answer all research questions.
  • Few NCRN scholars are conducting comparative or international research.
  • The NCRN’s mission to improve collaboration and networking within the field is paying dividends.

15 Unanswered Questions
The following questions speak to efforts geared toward gaining insights “to ensure that NDCs contribute effectively and equitably to the overall credentialing system in the United States”:

  1. Why ae so many NDCs emerging? – This question, in general, is largely unexplored, but getting a better understanding of the motivations of credential issuers “would surely impact our research on other aspects of credentialing.” 
  2. Why do some learners (and most others) choose NDCs? – Deciding to earn an NDC entails a personal decision-making process that happens in different populations and in different geographic and institutional contexts. Understanding that decision-making process may “help credential issuers redesign credentials to broaden their appeal.” 
  3. How do individuals choose between NDC fields and programs? – This is another area that is largely unexplored. Questions related to future earnings, outcomes data, economic return, work preferences, racial and gender perceptions, and access to advisors all fall within this category.
  4. Who starts, but does not complete, programs leading to NDCs? – There is a lack of studies focused specifically on learner persistence. “Knowing more about completion rates (and how they vary across subpopulations, types of NDCs, time to complete, and industries and occupations) would give us important data points to consider. . .” 
  5. What are the implications of NDCs for equity in the labor market? – “Empirical research to date does not tell us whether, on net, NDCs are reducing inequality.” 
  6. What barriers exist to the attainment of NDCs? – Despite the lower costs of NDCs, especially when compared to degrees, the extent that lower cost result in lower net burden to potential NDC completion rates is unknown. “We also know relatively little about how academic preparation, time constraints, and pre-existing knowledge and perceptions about NDCs may pose barrier to the attainment of NDCs.” 
  7. How do we differentiate between high and low quality NDCs? – “Researchers still struggle to accurately categorize NDCs on the basis of quality.” Even accreditation standards are not dependable gauges for the labor market value of certifications. 
  8.  What is the value of non-credentialed training and learning experiences? – Employers are developing ways to measure competencies, regardless of where and how they have been obtained, but  pinpointing the scope to which employers would value such competencies has not yet been fully indentified.    
  9. What types of certificates are of greatest value to different subpopulations of learners? Certificates vary greatly and “are probably the category that remains most amorphous and daunting to researchers.” There are two problems with certificates: “disagreement on whether or how to differentiate them in official datasets” and “a lack of quality data on the universe of certificates and certificate-holders.
  10. How do employers value NDCs relative to degrees? – This is another poorly understood category. While employer perceptions are important, there are many other variables that define value, such as how hands-on apprenticeships assure “competence that goes above and beyond what one learns in the classroom.”
  11.  What are the non-wage benefits of NDC attainment? – Intrinsic and extrinsic benefits have been studied in relation to nursing certifications, but not so much in other NDCs, such as licenses and apprenticeships. In addition, knowing more about workers who earn NDCs in areas related to public health and safety, for instance, would help with the overall understanding of non-wage benefits related to NDC completion. 
  12. How do the long-term outcomes associated with online NDCs compare to high-contact NDCs? – The long-term impacts of completing a fully online or hybrid NDC is “virgin ground for researchers.” By looking into online NDC learning outcomes compared to face-to-face NDCs as they relate to socioeconomic mobility, institutions and policymakers can make more informed decisions about the design and character of online NDCs. 
  13. Are more intensive NDCs more valuable than shorter, less rigorous NDCs in the labor market? – “We know little about whether the duration, intensity, or even quality of instruction in non-degree programs (perhaps especially in certificates) is related to the benefits that those who complete such credentials receive in the labor market.”
  14. How effective is the public workforce system in supporting the attainment of quality NDCs? – WIOA connects displaced workers with quality credentials, often favoring NDCs. WIOA’s Eligible Training Provider Lists (EPTLs) “are gaining attention from policymakers and researchers . . . However, little is known about their effectiveness as well as why and how some unemployed individuals seek and choose NDCs. 
  15. Would innovative credentials gaining traction in the United States be of value in the context of developing countries? – “There is an opportunity for the non-degree research community to engage with institutions in developing countries to enhance the quality of NDCs worldwide, which may include disseminating emerging models and best practices in the United States to educators, regulators, and learners worldwide.” 

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