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Incremental Credentialing Framework

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The Environmental Scan


The Environmental Scan

The environmental scan conducted by the initiative’s project team gathered 87 state- and system-level projects across 41 states that were recognizing and credentialing learning in various ways. Although many more credentialing projects were identified at individual institutions, the scan focused on the state and system levels because of the implication for policy change and resource allocations.

State- and system-level projects were identified through: 1) internet searches across all 50 states and territories, and 2) projects known to leaders of the initiative or its 25-member advisory board.

Projects identified in the scan were sorted by several factors, including:  purpose, key issues being addressed, credential focus (credit or non-credit at the postsecondary education and/or employment levels), and key outcomes (when available).

Eight key themes were identified for the purpose and issues being addressed:

  • Equity – Increasing access to, persistence in, progress through, and completion of postsecondary education; and obtaining gainful employment across different race and ethnicity groups, underserved populations, and learners at risk of failure, including adult learners.
  • Transparency – Increasing information about, the learning represented within, and the outcomes from the credentials to all stakeholders – including learners, other postsecondary institutions, and employers; providing better transparency about what learners know and can do, through strategies such as comprehensive learner records.
  • Trust – Building partnerships and agreements across institutions and industries, with increased engagement, input, and feedback from stakeholders.
  • Quality Assurance – Building strategies and processes to ensure the quality of credentials, especially shorter-term and microcredentials.
  • Access, Persistence, and Completion – Creating strategies to increase learners’ access to, persistence in, and completion of high-quality credentials that lead to further education and gainful employment. This includes development of additional shorter-term credentials directly aligned to employment.
  • Assessment – Developing more direct assessments and assessments designed to recognize and validate all learning – regardless of source – for academic credit and for program or employment requirements.
  • Workforce development – Increasing attainment of competencies that help learners find or retain employment, often through industry partnerships with postsecondary institutions, skills organizations (e.g., bootcamps), or community-based organizations.
  • Cost – Implementing different strategies that decrease the cost of education while increasing the number of quality credentials and ensuring a sustainable return on investment.

In addition to certificates and degrees, the types of credentials developed within the various projects included badges, microcredentials, and other shorter-term credentials. Instruction featured condensed methods (e.g., eight-week terms, weekend courses), and online delivery. In some cases, learning external to the institution (e.g., prior leaning, licenses, certifications) was also included in the credentialing efforts. Many of the credentials were aligned to degree programs, creating stackable credentials.

Patterns in the methods for creating credentials and connecting them to employment were identified and themed. From these patterns, a draft Incremental Credentialing Framework was developed, used, and revised during the pilot phase of the grant.

Four main patterns of credentialing were identified initially:

  • Credentials developed to address skilling, upskilling, and re-skilling learners for the workforce.
  • Credentials developed in increments, disaggregating and modularizing degrees to provide progressive blocks of learning that stacked into degrees.
  • Credentials developed as part of a transfer pathways, often between non-credit and credit divisions within an institution or across two institutions.
  • Credentials developed jointly by an institution and an industry partner, often for targeted employment areas.

The environmental scan surfaced numerous concerns:

  • Lack of Consistency
    • Inconsistency in approaches increased the potential to confuse stakeholders, including learners. It also can increase mistrust and hinder transferability.
    • There was no common language used across the credentials. This also meant there was variation in the way credentials were described and the knowledge and skills they represented. This confused stakeholders and made it difficult to align related credentials.
    • Although some credentials had quality assurance and transparency mechanisms in place, these were not consistent.
    • Methods of describing credentials and communicating their value were inconsistent.
  • Models built on older models
    • The four-tier degree system in postsecondary education hinders development of new types of credentials. Too often, newer credentials were structured around criteria established by legacy systems, without consideration of what credentialing could be today or in the future.
    • Postsecondary education business models and infrastructures are built around a four-tier degree system, which often lacks policies better suited to shorter-term credentials – including those related to learner data, financial aid, and resource allocation.
    • Recruitment and enrollment strategies tend to target traditional degree-seeking students, with little outreach to learners who would benefit from incremental credentials.
  • Technology and data sharing
    • Most student information and degree audit systems are designed for degrees and certificates, not for other types of credentials or for the assessment of prior or experiential learning. Some institutions developed workarounds to store data on learning and smaller credentials.
    • Although some institutions piloted different types of comprehensive learner records (e.g., Learn & Employment Record – LER), adoption is slow across systems, institutions, and industry.
  • Learn-work integration
    • Some believed that incremental credentials apply only to work-based programs – a barrier to overcome. Others were developing different types of incremental credentials across academic programs to document different 21st century skills.
    • Some academic programs were embedding workplace credentials into academic programs or evaluating workplace credentials for program or admissions credit. This practice is growing, but is still in the early stages of development.

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