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Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

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Use of Incremental Credentialing Framework to Guide Curricular Change

Incremental Credentialing in Graduate Education

Use of Incremental Credentialing Framework to Guide Curricular Change

Many are aware of the boom in microcredentialing at the associate or even bachelor’s degree level, but fewer are aware of developments in incremental credentialing in  graduate/professional education. Still fewer know of resources and tools that may be helpful in developing incremental credentials and credentialing systems.  

The Credential As You Go initiative uses the term incremental credentials to refer to all types of credentials that formally document learning. This includes degrees, certificates, badges, microcredentials, licenses, apprenticeships, and other credentials. Incremental credentials capture learning acquired along the learning pathway, and formally recognize and connect that learning to a larger context of work and school. They can be noncredit or credit bearing, can be at the undergraduate and graduate level, and can be at any level within industry. Master’s level paths leading to the Ph.D. represent an incremental step. 

This graphic depicts many paths of incremental credentialing— the red circles indicate areas already occurring at the graduate level. Another example are apprenticeships in the U.S. and other countries at the graduate level.

When thinking about incremental credentialing, focus on how to purposefully capture what people know and can do along the way—to ensure formal recognition of that learning. 

The first phase of Credential As You Go (2019-2021) explored the feasibility of a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system, assisted by a Lumina Foundation grant. Key outcomes from this work:

  • An environmental scan across 41 states to examine patterns in credentialing found that some states, systems, and institutions were already moving toward incremental credentialing in different ways. Patterns of credentialing were identified to inform the development of an Incremental Credentialing Framework.
  • Pilot projects at two community colleges and a university within the State University of New York (SUNY) system developed and tested the emerging themes, providing proof of concept. The faculty and Credential As You Go team refined the Framework, which features six types of incremental credential approaches.
  • Feedback from hundreds of top national leaders—obtained through an advisory board, interviews, and a symposium—provided valuable insights and generated enthusiasm for scaling the Credential As You Go initiative.

There are six approaches in the Framework. They're commonly used together and can be used across both the noncredit and credit space and with graduate programs. Each of the six approaches supports the use of prior learning assessment and the auto awarding of credentials. 

Learn As You Go credentials prepare individuals for upskilling, reskilling, and/or developing new skills in the workplace and academic disciplinary areas. Individuals often seek these credentials without intending at that time to pursue a longer-term certificate or degree. These credentials can stand on their own or be connected to other credentials, including degrees. Examples: Some areas at the graduate level include key skills that are needed to be successful such as in reading, writing, conducting  research, and statistics. Some graduate programs also offer a graduate school type of preparation course, which could result in a badge, microcredential, or other kind of credential. 

Specialize As You Go credentials can prepare individuals for specializations in the workplace and in academic disciplines. They may or may not be connected to other credentials. Individuals seek these credentials to add advanced learning to more traditional certificates or degrees, often to improve employment prospects. Examples: Picking up a specialization in educational research within your doctorate, which could be packaged into a credential. Many graduate programs already offer Certificates of Advanced Studies, which is one type of incremental credential. Some institutions are creating microcredentials in cognitive areas or specialization areas. 

Stack As You Go credentials purposefully stack into other credentials, forming a credentialing pathway. These credentials can be noncredit, microcredentials, certificates, skills badges, licenses, certifications, degrees, and other types. These credentials are purposefully planned to stack and offer learners transparent choices. A common question is, will learners really know how one credential leads to the next and how it also can map into different fields? Examples: The idea of designing a series of aligned credentials that can stack follows a long tradition of certificates in graduate studies. Some start with a microcredential that leads to a certificate that can lead to a degree. Some institutions map these points to careers and position types. And some are discussing how to create an “all but dissertation” (ABD) credential for those students who have not completed the dissertation. This would give them formal recognition for what they already know, and encourage them to complete the dissertation.

Transfer As You Go credentials are built to transfer across higher education institutions and/or academic programs. They may be built sequentially, leading to the next-level credential (e.g., noncredit to credit, associate to bachelor’s), or across institutions or programs at the same level. Transfer credentials provide potential cost sharing when they can be offered across institutions or programs. Examples: There are many examples of four-plus-two programs and master’s-to-doctorate programs. Another possibility is to develop partnerships across institutions to offer students at one institution specializations from another institution—without having to build out additional resources at the first institution. The idea is that of cross-registration, but at a graduate level. 

Partner As You Go credentials prepare individuals for employment, as well as work-focused credentials are accepted into or embedded within credentialing pathways. These credentials often are developed in conjunction with business/industry partners, and they may be connected to a degree or certificate program. Examples: The most common area for higher education/industry partnership has involved institutions evaluating industry and professional association certifications and licenses for credit, or embedding them into the curriculum. There are many examples of advanced industry certifications at a graduate level. For example, SHRM’s course, Employee Relations Managing Employees in a Dynamic Work Environment, has been evaluated by the American Council on Education for two graduate credits. At Keene State University, master’s degree students in Safety and Occupational Health Applied Sciences gained Certified Safety Professional Status recognized by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. There are many ways to integrate and connect academic and workplace learning. Some countries outside the U.S. offer apprenticeships at the graduate level in partnership with industry. 

Retro Award As You Go credentials are awarded for learning already acquired but not yet credentialed. They often target adult learners with some college and no credential and sometimes recognize learning “milestones” that are reached before completing a degree (e.g., general education). Examples: Where students who have completed coursework but are no longer with the institution or have changed their majors, institutions can create incremental credentials and capture the education students achieved. According to the CGS study on Ph.D. completion, only 56% of doctoral students complete. That means the remaining doctoral students have learning that is not being recognized formally. Many will claim ABD status, but this is not a formal credential. What if it became one? Also, some institutions are considering identifying students who are partway through a program and credentialing some of the learning they have already acquired. Some institutions are evaluating prior learning for graduate-level credit, and some are developing smaller credentials to capture that prior learning that can stack into a certificate or degree. All past students, regardless of their status, who have successfully completed their statistics and research courses, for example, could be candidates for a credential in analytical approaches, which could stack into other credentials but have value on its own. 

External and Prior LearningRecognizing learning that took place outside the institution is also a part of the Incremental Credential Framework. Examples: In the last several years, prior learning assessment at the graduate level has grown. [See Section on Prior Learning Assessment]

Auto-Awarding is another component of incremental credentialing. Once students reach what is needed for a credential, they often have to apply for the credential and pay a fee. This is a barrier to equity and progress. With auto awarding of credentials, students who meet the requirements for a credential—regardless of its size—automatically receive that credential, and it is transcripted and appears on the student’s academic record.

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