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

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Quality, Trust, and Value of Incremental Credentials

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Definitions of Key Terms and Concepts

Quality, Trust, and Value of Incremental Credentials

Definitions of Key Terms and Concepts

(Definitions are adapted from material provided by many of the organizations in the Reference section.)

  • Accreditation: The process of assessment meant to improve academic quality and institutional accountability by an established set of standards to ensure a basic level of quality. Accreditation covers both initial and ongoing approval of an educational institution or program. Entire schools or institutions can be accredited (i.e., institutional accreditation), as can individual schools, programs, or departments (specialized or programmatic accreditation). Accreditation is one factor to ensure that credentials meet established standards of quality and rigor, providing external validation and assurance. In the United States, accreditation is typically conducted by independent accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
  • Alignment with Industry Standards: A quality, trusted, and valuable credential aligns with industry standards and current practices. Employers seek candidates who demonstrate the skills and knowledge that directly apply to their industry's needs. Therefore, credentials developed in collaboration with industry experts and regularly updated to reflect the latest advancements are more likely to be considered quality, trusted, and valuable. 
  • Credentials: A credential is a documented award that attests to an individual’s qualifications in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities, and/or experiences. Credentials, which encompass all forms by which these qualifications are recognized include degrees, certifications, certificates, occupational licenses, diplomas, digital badges, and others. According to Credential Engine, there were 1,076,358 unique credentials in the United States in 2023, organized into 18 categories. These credentials were offered through four types of education and training providers: postsecondary educational institutions, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers, non-academic organizations, and secondary schools. 
  • Ethical Standards/Integrity: Ethical standards and integrity demonstrated by the entity issuing the credential include adherence to ethical practices in all aspects of credential development, assessment, and evaluation. Upholding professional ethics, maintaining confidentiality, and avoiding conflicts of interest are crucial to establish and preserve trust in credentials. 
  • Incremental Credentials: Incremental credentials capture learning as it is acquired along the learning pathway and formally recognize and connect that learning to a larger context. Incremental credentials can be non-credit or credit-bearing; undergraduate or graduate level; of any size, from small units of learning up through degrees. Incremental credentials ensure that learners are recognized for what they know and can do as they acquire the learning; they prevent learners from being deprived of  formal documentation of their learning. 
  • Professional Development: A quality, trusted, and valuable credential recognizes the importance of ongoing professional development. In rapidly evolving fields (e.g., technology and health care), staying up to date is crucial. Credentials that require or encourage their holders to engage in continuous learning demonstrate a commitment to maintaining high standards of professionalism. Continuous learning activities include participation in conferences, workshops, online courses, performance testing, and completing and earning additional credentials. 
  • Quality: Quality in a credential refers to the high standards, effectiveness, and excellence exhibited in its design, delivery, and outcomes. Many elements help ensure that credentials meet high standards, prepare learners effectively, and are respected and valued by employers, educational institutions, and the broader community. These elements include: a rigorous and well-designed curriculum, robust assessment methods, competent faculty, accreditation, relevance, positive outcomes, and adherence to ethical and professional standards.   
  • Recognition/Reputation:  A quality, trusted, and valuable credential is widely recognized and respected by employers, professional organizations, and other relevant stakeholders. Recognition and reputation are built over time through consistent delivery of high-quality education, training, and assessment. Employers often value credentials from accredited institutions and/or certification bodies that have a proven track record of producing competent professionals. A credential's reputation is influenced by several factors, including faculty expertise, research output, alumni success, industry partnerships, and accreditation
  • Relevance/Currency: A quality credential demonstrates relevance to the current needs and trends of the industry or field, reflects the knowledge and skills that are in demand, and aligns with the evolving requirements of employers and stakeholders. Regular updates and revisions to the credential's content and curriculum help ensure currency and relevance over time.
  • Return on Investment (ROI): In higher education, ROI often refers to what students will earn professionally based on their investment in an undergraduate or graduate degree. The concept of ROI is that the initial investment in acquiring the credential is offset by the increased earning potential and career-advancement opportunities it provides. Indicators typically are economic and may include obtaining a job (employability), wage level, job mobility, and benefits acquired through employment. However, economic indicators aren’t the only measures of ROI in higher education. Another important benefit is the maturation process students go through during their college experience. (For example, research shows that college serves as a capstone course for life by helping students mature and develop socially in order to become well-rounded and productive adults). New ROI concepts are being explored that primarily focus on economic factors. One concept proposes a three-way model to measure the value of credentials, including short-term credentials. It would measure three values: (1) Economic—the value ascribed to credentials that directly connect to high-wage  and/or high-demand jobs; (2) Mobility—the value ascribed to credentials that directly connect to academic (educational) and workforce advancement; and (3) Engagement—the value ascribed to credentials that directly connect to learners’ continued investment in postsecondary education. (Credentials scoring high in this third area would be those that increase the confidence of learners that future education is indeed for them, that they can successfully pursue an educational and career journey. 
  • Rigorous Assessment/Evaluation: A rigorous assessment and evaluation process accurately measures an individual's knowledge, skills, and competencies. The assessment methods are fair, consistent, and aligned with the credential’s stated learning outcomes. There are mechanisms for quality assurance such as regular evaluation and validation of the assessment process. 
  • Track Record/Alumni Success: Trust in a credential can be reinforced by the track record and success of its alumni. Positive outcomes such as graduates securing relevant employment and/or excelling in their careers contribute to the perception of trustworthiness. Alumni testimonials, case studies, and career placement data can further establish trust by showcasing a credential's impact and effectiveness.
  • Transparency/Accountability: Transparency and accountability require clear and accessible information about a credential’s requirements, curriculum, assessment methods, and evaluation criteria. Transparent communication about the credential's purpose, outcomes, and intended audience helps stakeholders make informed decisions and develop trust in its validity.
  • Trust: Trust refers to the confidence and reliability attributed to a credential by various stakeholders, including employers, educational institutions, professional organizations, and individuals. It centers on the belief that the credential accurately represents an individual's qualifications, knowledge, and skills; has been earned through a legitimate and credible process; and can be used to meet the needs of its holder. Many elements help ensure trust in credentials, including accreditation, recognition, transparency, accountability, rigorous assessment, relevance, ethical standards, and a proven track record. 
  • Value: Value refers to the worth, utility, and tangible benefits that a credential provides to individuals, employers, educational institutions, and society as a whole. Many elements help ensure value in credentials, including employability, career advancement/mobility, wage levels, industry recognition and relevance, personal and professional development, credibility and trustworthiness, access to further education, and contribution to society and community. 
  • Well-Designed Curriculum and Assessment: A credential’s curriculum should ensure a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the subject matter, equipping individuals with the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary to excel in their field. A well-designed curriculum incorporates both theoretical foundations and practical applications, ensuring that graduates are prepared to meet the demands of the workplace. Similarly, the assessment process is fair and transparent, evaluating learners' mastery of the required knowledge and skills. 

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