A Nonprofit Spent Five Years Counting a Million Credentials. What Does It All Add Up To?

A Nonprofit Spent Five Years Counting a Million Credentials. What Does It All Add Up To?

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For the past five years, researchers have been carefully counting all the degrees, certificates and badges available for people to earn in the U.S., a figure they say now totals 1,076,358.

And for the past five years, some observers have scratched their heads about this enumeration endeavor and asked … why?

The effort, run by the nonprofit Credential Engine, marked its half-decade this week with a virtual convening to describe its latest research report and a reception in Washington, D.C., to celebrate its anniversary. As an afternoon of Zoom presentations gave way to an evening of conversations over cocktails, the purpose and potential of all that tallying came into focus.

More than two dozen states now partner with Credential Engine, using the Credential Transparency Description Language it developed to assemble, sort through and better understand their education and workforce data. And some state governments are applying this system to help their residents directly. For example, a leader from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development explained during the webinar how her state is creating a digital search tool that lets people select among all the credential options available to them, sorting by occupation, program location and graduate outcomes.

The growing uptake is a sign that more policymakers and officials appreciate the importance of creating more transparency in the education “marketplace,” leaders at Credential Engine told EdSurge during interviews at the nonprofit’s reception on Dec. 7.

“This is the right thing to do for your students,” said Scott Cheney, the CEO of Credential Engine. “It’s crazy that it’s easier to search for, compare and select a hotel room or a used car online than it is to make an informed decision” about which postsecondary credentials to pursue.

Still, advocates leading different but related efforts to make higher education and workforce training programs better for participants and employers have different ideas about what transparency really looks like when it comes to credentials. A few told EdSurge that they would like to see the credential-counting effort address deeper questions.

“We still don’t have a great sense of which credentials offer the most value,” said Michael Bettersworth, a vice chancellor at Texas State Technical College and the CEO of SkillsEngine. “Which of these offer the most opportunity for individuals seeking greater career advancement?”

Colleges Have Competition — and Opportunity

As in previous editions, this year’s annual Credential Engine report offers a glimpse of the large landscape of credentials on offer from traditional and upstart providers—including colleges and universities, bootcamps and apprenticeships. The report divides these credentials into 18 categories across four types of providers: postsecondary educational institutions, MOOC organizations, secondary schools and non-academic entities.

New to the research this year is a count of how many groups in the U.S. provide credentials: 59,692. That enormous number indicates that there has been an “explosion” of providers, Cheney said, including from large companies like Google, Amazon and LinkedIn that offer job-training courses and badges. Of the four categories of providers, non-academic entities offer the largest count of credentials, according to the report.

The fact that colleges don’t top that list of credential providers should signal to leaders at traditional higher ed institutions that it’s time to pay attention to all the organizations now competing for students, especially since enrollment at colleges has been declining, said Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board and a member of the Credential Engine board of directors.

Papadakis argued that colleges that are open to reimagining how they operate—perhaps by embracing competency-based education and offering credit for prior learning—have the opportunity to become hubs for many types of learning experiences that lead to a variety of credentials. During an era when the relationship between employers and employees is shifting, she explained, this could help both companies and workers navigate new job-training pathways and upskilling programs.

Colleges could play a role in sharing information with the learning-and-training ecosystem, too. For example, Southern New Hampshire University is using Credential Engine’s Credential Transparency Description Language to make open data about its credentials and courses broadly available.

What About Value and Quality?

Credential Engine’s registry of credentials is not a ranking. Search its Credential Finder system for “nursing” credentials, for instance, and it pulls up 1,987 results, including a certified nursing assistant license, a nurse aid training certificate of completion and a bachelor of science in nursing degree.

The nonprofit’s systems are not designed to tell students and workers which program is best, or where to seek degrees, certificates and badges, said Credential Engine board chair Barbara Gellman-Danley, who is also the president of the Higher Learning Commission, an accrediting organization. Instead, the nonprofit’s efforts aim to create a more level playing field by collecting and sharing information about all the options out there, she explained.

That makes some sense to Jennifer Dirmeyer, the managing director of the Workforce Talent Educators Association, because it helps to avoid “privileging particular types of educational systems over others,” she told EdSurge in an interview. She added that enumerating all existing credentials, and developing a shared language to describe them, is a strong foundation—a first step—for additional work.

“This is absolutely necessary, but it isn’t sufficient. We have to live up to the potential Credential Engine is creating for us by using this to elevate the conversation about outcomes,” Dirmeyer said. “I think transparency about what is happening is not that useful. Transparency about the results of what is happening is extremely useful.”

Other efforts underway may more directly reveal, or influence, the outcomes that various credentials offer to students and companies. For example, the Center on Education and Labor at New America has conducted research about what makes non-degree programs “high quality.” The Workforce Talent Educators Association helps job-training programs assure quality. And SkillsEngine aims to help providers reshape their credential programs to ensure that they teach students skills that employers are actually seeking.

Bettersworth, of SkillsEngine, said he would like to see an index of credentials that indicates which ones employers really value. (Bettersworth served on the Credential Engine technical advisory group for a while, but doesn’t currently.) Dirmeyer said she wants to see a data system that helps employers open their minds to different kinds of credentials when they evaluate and hire applicants—and therefore make more job offers to people of all backgrounds.

“If employers can’t use this effectively to actually refine their search process, they’re going to fall back on the same methods that they’ve always used,” Dirmeyer said. “Those credentials are not going to pack the power they could have.”

Any one effort can only reach so far so fast. Yet experts inside and outside of Credential Engine agree that the information the nonprofit has collected—and the shared language it has created to define that information—can be applied in all kinds of ways in the future, especially since its data is open and available for other entities to use.

As Kerry Ballast, a leader with the Texas Workforce Commission, explained during the Credential Engine webinar, she found that the first year of digging into credentials data “is all about quantity.”

Now she is looking forward, she said, to thinking about “quality.”



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