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

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Policy in Incremental Credentialing

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Accreditation

Policy That Affects Incremental Credentialing

Accreditation

Accreditation plays an important role in the policy world. American higher education relies on accreditation to ensure quality and foster a culture of continuous improvement. There are two types of educational accreditation – “institutional” and “programmatic” (also called specialized or professional accreditation). Institutional accreditation reviews the academic and organizational structures of a college or university as a whole; programmatic accreditation assesses specialized or professional programs and disciplines at colleges and universities. Most specialized accrediting bodies are members of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA).

There are two kinds of institutional accreditors: Regional accreditors accredit institutions within a defined geographic region of the United States; national accreditors accredit colleges and universities throughout the nation. Some regional accreditors also accredit institutions outside their geographic regions. Some specialized accreditors accredit professional schools and postsecondary institutions that are free-standing in their operations. This means the specialized accreditor may also function as an “institutional” accrediting agency.

Both types of accreditation are important – and not only to help ensure quality in education. Institutional accreditation can provide students with access to federal student aid, and the licensing requirements for many professions include completion of a program that is accredited by a specialized accreditor.

Examples of policy stemming from institutional accreditors:

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has the following types of policy documents: policy statement, accreditation policy, administrative policy, procedures, guidelines, and templates (request forms) which are defined in the policy Review of Standards, Requirements of Affiliation, and Policies. Each policy is accompanied by a set of procedures. The commission may also develop guidelines to support and guide institutions, peer evaluators, and the Commission in the conduct of peer review and accreditation decision making. Recently updated documents (summer 2022) are related to incremental credentialing at institutions:

  • Transfer Credit, Prior Learning, and Articulation Agreements Policy
  • Transfer of Credit, Prior Learning, and Articulation Agreements Guidelines
  • Transfer of Credit, Prior Learning, and Articulation Agreements Procedures

The Higher Learning Commission is reviewing the rapidly changing trends in credentialing. Its board uses this information to shape future policy, and other institutional accrediting bodies are looking carefully at trends. In 2022, the HLC identified the following trends:

  • The exponential rise of microcredentials within and outside higher education. This includes micro-masters at the graduate level.
  • Increasing competition among providers is eroding the prevailing edge that higher education has long enjoyed.
  • Non-degree programs and certificates are on the rise. Many learners are choosing these alternative offerings that may or may not lead toward a degree.
  • Employers often encourage credentials that are short-term, yield rapid returns on investment, and/or can lead to immediate promotion or new jobs.
  • Many consumers seek continuing professional development to learn entirely new skill sets. This signals the end of the “jobs for life, one career path” historical paradigm.
  • Apprenticeships, coupled with a variety of credentials, provide pathways to jobs and are gaining increasing support from elected officials.
  • With more than 1 million known credentials offered in the U.S. alone, learners need more complete and more coherent information about the choices available to them.
  • Many institutions are embedding certificates as stackable pathways to the degree.
  • Expanded credentials open the door for new partnerships, but their success will depend on focusing on learners’ needs and ensuring quality.
  • Decreased enrollments in certain parts of the country, especially in community colleges, are causing increased financial stress across higher education.
  • Institutions are building plans and new business models to assure sustainability.
  • Institutional mergers and acquisitions (or affiliations) are increasing.
  • More institutions are closing due to financial and other pressures.
  • State funding is down in some areas, up in others, and in many cases not at the level to make institutions “whole” from pre-recession years.
  • Local funding is under stress due to the pandemic and the associated costs of creating a safe environment.
  • Tuition-driven institutions will need to expand sources of revenue to strengthen their financial health. At the same time, they face criticism from the public about rising costs.
  • COVID relief funds assisted most colleges and universities, but there is no sign they will be continued.
  • For some students, the “gap year” became a “gone year.” They did not start or return to college.
  • Tuition discounting is on the rise at some institutions, which threatens sustainability.
  • Increased focus on capital campaigns has been successful at many institutions. However, the funding is not always sustainable.
  • Alternative providers and short-term credential programs are a growing threat to the financial models of higher education.

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