Moving from a Degree-Centric Postsecondary System to an Incremental Credentialing System: What Happens to Learners’ Financing Options?

Tools and Resources

Frequently Asked Questions


An answer from one accrediting organization: We are just starting to have those conversations with institutions and systems. In all honesty, the majority of the focus has been around credit-bearing programs.

Many believe it is difficult – if not impossible – to undertake large-scale innovations due to accreditation requirements. Our postsecondary system is degree-centric, organized around associate, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral and professional degrees. Incremental credentials change this dynamic. This potential increases the complexity of the changing educational waterways, but there are many checks and balances – key among them, the requirements of institutional accreditation for approved colleges and universities. Is an incremental credential system compatible with accreditation? Credential As You Go interviewed the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in fall 2021 to explore these issues.  One of the accreditors shared this answer: What I tell institutions and others asking about incremental credentialing is, “I hope you did not hear me say no.” I remind them that they should not believe the myth that accreditors won’t let us make changes, which is a common misperception. Accreditors have gotten a bad rap as for creating barriers to innovation and maintaining the status quo. Many institutional accreditors are not prescriptive about programs because programming is the institution’s domain. We ask that whatever the institutions develop comply with quality standards and that the institutions tell us how innovations are being implemented. Because we’re part of the regulatory triad, as an institutional accreditor we have to be sure institutions follow state and federal regulatory requirements The accreditor will review applicable changes to be sure the institution does not get into trouble while implementing initiatives and does not get caught among any bad actors who may also be working in this space. We’re asking institutions to demonstrate the quality and outcomes of their programs. Often when I hear others speaking about why accreditation is such a barrier, they’re referencing accreditation standards we no longer subscribe to. We have long since focused on outcomes, but I do admit that in the past, accreditation was very input-based – like how many of these do you have, how many of that? What percentage of? No longer.

Zanville & Travers (10/8/2021, Evolllution) Is Incremental Credentialing Compatible with Institutional Accreditation? Part 3:


Credential As You Go is a movement to inform and facilitate the development and adoption of a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system to improve education and employment outcomes for all learners. Many stakeholder groups are needed to realize this major transformation of the U.S. degree-centric system to an incremental credential system– state systems of higher education, postsecondary institutions and third-party credential providers, employers, quality assurance organizations, philanthropy, policy, research and others that comprise the learn-and-work ecosystem. To help guide the movement, Credential As You Go has assembled a National Advisory Board made up of nearly 130 people to date. Members of the Board are leaders in various components of the learn and work ecosystem and participate in key  networks and alliances. The Board is large in order to help us raise national awareness of the importance of building a nationally recognized  incremental credentialing system.


We are offering a series of Mini-Conferences on several topics to help bring us all up to speed. We are also supplementing those with additional professional development resources, and are going to be looking at different kinds of practices — including looking at policy, accreditation, technology, communications, and other areas.  We’ll have a menu of resources on these at our website in then Tools & Resources section so people can use these resources and share them with their colleagues.


Many institutions (but primarily academic programs within institutions) around the U.S. are involved in innovative curriculum design related to incremental credentialing. They’re called by different names — stackable credentials, guided pathways, embedded credentials, micro-pathways, short term credentialing.  We’re calling these developments incremental credentialing, to describe a credential-as-you go-approach. These approaches are described in the Incremental Credentialing Framework being tested for efficacy (feasibility of the Framework and student learning outcomes). We are working with cohort #1 — 21 institutions (an equal mix of community colleges and four-year colleges and universities) in  CO, NC, and NY.  An additional cohort will join us in Year 2 of the grant; and we will be inviting other institutions to work with the Framework and other resources through our new Walmart Systems Change grant.

State systems of higher education and institutions in Colorado, New York and North Carolina are building incremental credentials that span many discipline areas, reflect state and regional workforce needs, and share common topical or career areas of focus including:

  • Educator pathways 
  • General education bundles 
  • <Business administration and organizational leadership
  • Medical assistant and allied health pathways 
  • Health informatics, IT, cybersecurity 
  • Culinary apprenticeships and pathways 
  • Global business and transportation and supply chain management 
  • Veterinarian tech pathways 
  • Construction and industrial technology 
  • Paramedic and emergency management 
  • Biomanufacturing and bio-pharm 

An inventory of these incremental credentials is posted in Tools & Resources.


Credentialing is a serious equity issue. About 48% of adults aged 25 years and older in the U.S. have a college degree; an additional 15% have some college but no degree. Degree completion by race-ethnicity reveals major disparities: 67% of Asian adults and 53% of White, non-Latinx adults have a college degree, compared to only 38% of African American adults and 30% of Latinx adults. African Americans are also the group with the highest percentage of adults who have some college and no degree (18%; U.S. Census Bureau, 2021), and they furthermore carry the highest student debt load among any racial group (Hanson, 2020). Individuals without a postsecondary degree are at a disadvantage to obtain living-wage earnings. A fair postsecondary education system is needed to capture uncounted learning and validate that learning to enable all individuals to be recognized for what they know and can do.


Colorado, North Carolina, and New York are rapid-prototyping states in Credential As You Go. Alabama has completed a readiness assessment and is in a planning stage in 2022 to potentially the initiative in 2023.


Incremental credentials capture learning as it is acquired along the learning pathway and formally recognizes and connects that learning to a larger context of work and education. Stackable credentials, smaller credentials added together or stacked into larger credentials is one approach. The Credential As You Go Framework includes five additional approaches to incremental credentialing. These include workforce-focused credentials that stand-alone connected or unconnected to other credentials, for credit or non-credit, focused on skilling, reskilling, and upskilling. Another approach focuses on specializations – for more in-depth learning than skill development, designed to help learners gain additional areas needed for advancement in employment and educational opportunities. Transfer credentials are designed specifically to transfer across academic departments and institutions right from the beginning. They are not designed in isolation from each other, but collaboratively across departments or institutions. Another approach involves the integration of workplace learning and/or field accepted credentials developed in conjunction with business and industry partners, into academic offerings, or providing opportunities to earn workplace credentials for the field within academic programming. The final approach is the awarding credentials retroactively, formally recognizing learning already achieved and/or building in natural entry and exit points.

Because of the many questions we were hearing around language issues in credentialing, we sponsored a virtual Summit on Language Used in the Credentialing Space: Big Concepts, Many Terms, Multiple Perspectives, Different Voices on March 16, 2022. The Summit focused on three especially troublesome areas of language use: Credentials and Pathways; Equity, Inclusion, Fairness; and Competencies, Skills, Learning Outcomes. Blogs summarizing the discussion appears in a four-part series at The EvoLLLution. See Part One). Noted was that many concepts and terms in the learn-and-work ecosystem are new to the field and have no established definitions. Many are trending terms and concepts, not well understood. Others are used in different ways, depending on stakeholder perspectives and contexts. A document that focuses on the terms, concepts and context is available here: Definitions and Use of Key Terms in Incremental Credentialing. An UPCEA committee focusing on typology, terminology and standards has observed that this may not be the best time to lock in set definitions for particular terms given the flux in the marketplace and instead focus on bringing clarity and supporting particular terms and attributes without creating a specific definition for each one. One of UPCEA’s recommendations is to consider a “continuum of credentials” in creating order and sense-making for their institution. The key is transparency: We can call these things anything we want as long as we define and contextualize them. So, what we call a short-term non-degree credential, whether it’s a micro-credential, badge or certificate, is not as important as declaring that it is a short-term non-degree credential. This description allows some cross-walking of these credentials until there is a common use of terms.


The Library is a component of Credential As You Go but it will have two roles: to support Credential As You Go which is going to have increasing needs for information on how to transform the current credentialing system to a fairer system – calling on all the building blocks in the ecosystem – and to support the many other efforts working to improve the learn and work ecosystem.  The Library is being developed in tandem with Credential As You Go. It has a unique website:


We’re hearing from states undertaking rapid-prototyping that the following would be most helpful:

  • Have a ROI to bring into the discussion.
  • Have some “best practices” on how to work with specific groups of employers.
  • Share emerging resources. Higher education has typically held our curriculum, syllabus, everything that pertains to a course like it was Fort Knox. We need to be more liberal in sharing the information among faculty and with employers that are going to be benefiting from this training and to see if they’re willing to put effort into modifying and keeping the instruction fresh and at the pace with the industry that is changing so fast, especially in advanced manufacturing and healthcare. Those are the two areas where we would be benefiting from sharing information.
  • Have some fixed parameters, that the institution, the system itself, has imposed would help us find the balance in changes and being nimble about it. This is challenging work and faculty and administrators  often feel like they’re fighting windmills. If we could gather more information on how others have approached changes, it would be helpful.


An answer from one accrediting organization:

Post pandemic, everybody’s going to need to think about the new normal. What is business as usual? What areas of our accreditation processes can we make clearer, so institutions understand they have permission to proceed? For accreditors, what areas are we vague about? We need to go back and clarify our language, policies, and procedures as regulations change. We’re seeing several areas of change around innovative partnerships, contractual arrangements, mergers, consortia, consolidation and incremental credentialing. These changes are making us step back and think about what they mean for the institution and what we need to be aware of within our policy and procedures framework to help institutions move along this pathway without doing themselves—or students—harm. It is important to have these conversations with our state, system and institutional partners to try to meet institutions’ needs and eliminate areas of vagueness, lacking clarity or where our policy presents a challenge. There is a willingness to revisit them.

State systems of higher education and coordinating boards play a major role in policy. These entities typically develop and implement postsecondary policy in alignment with federal and state statute. They administer academic, financial aid and workforce programs to include the review and approval of academic programs and research centers; commission and conduct research and analysis and complete data reports; set tuition rates, and administer funding formulas and allocate funds. Governors often play a key role in these entities by appointing their CEOs.

Here are examples from two states:

  • Louisiana Governor used federal stimulus dollars to start Reboot Your Careers to provide financial assistance for short-term postsecondary courses.

Since 2016, FastForward in Virginia operates statewide short-term credential program. Impetus: students + employers needed short-term education options and employers wanted short-term credential programs of value.

The State University of New York (SUNY) adopted a broad micro-credential policy in 2018, following recommendations of Micro-Credentialing Task Force created in 2015: 

  • Via collaborative process and endorsed by SUNY Trustees, SUNY has a definition of micro-credentials designed to ensure the rigor and quality of micro-credentials are the same as every type of credential SUNY offers.
  • SUNY Micro-Credentials (1) verify, validate and attest that specific skills and/or competencies have been achieved; (2) are endorsed by the issuing institution; (3) developed via established faculty governance processes; (4) designed to be meaningful and high quality.
  • SUNY has established a Taxonomy of Terms around micro-credentials,
  • Today, 400+ micro-credentials across 30+campuses.

Multiple bills passed in 2022 in Colorado to support credentialing strategies and disadvantaged students:

  • Improving Students’ Postsecondary Options (HB22-1366) provide increased funding to make postsecondary options more accessible and affordable
  • Regional Collaborative Grants (HB22-1350) provide incentive grants to fund talent development for workforce development
  • Opportunities for Credential Attainment (SB22-192) tasks the Colorado Department of Higher Education to work with state institutions of higher education to develop and implement a process to support institutions to create stackable credential pathways. Legislation includes provisions for public universities to award associate degrees to students who stop out short of a bachelor’s, as well as a task force and study of the public higher education system in Colorado.

Detailed information is at the Colorado Department of Higher Education website.

Florida’s 2021 Legislative Session passed HB 1505 to require public postsecondary institutions to award students a nationally recognized digital badge upon completion of gen ed core courses that demonstrate career readiness: 

  • Begins for students entering a postsecondary institution in fall 2022. 
  • State Board of Education + Board of Governors for State University System jointly appoint faculty committees to identify competencies in general education core that demonstrate career readiness and will result in award of “verifiable and interoperable nationally recognized digital credential.”
  • Badges must be awarded/recognized by every FL public postsecondary institution. 


One area that’s particularly challenging among all the institutions is around technology. Data on  non-degree or non-credit information is typically pulled either manually or through separate systems from the credit system. In order to eventually verify what learning is, some institutions are beginning to pull together, particularly some of the community colleges, their  noncredit side (the workforce side_ together with the credit side. We’ll be looking for examples of how fast technology solutions are going into place, related to data collection, student information systems, degree audits, learning verification systems (transcripting), etc.  We will offer a Tool Kit at our Tools & Resources section of the website on Technology to assist state systems of higher education and institutions especially.


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