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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Employer Views of Credentials

Quality, Trust, and Value of Incremental Credentials

Employer Views of Credentials

In the quality assurance literature, the characteristics of quality are primarily expressed in the language of the employers who hire institutions’ graduates (Learn & Work Ecosystem Library: Quality and Value).  The following characteristics often are listed as indicators of quality:

  • Technical knowledge or competence in a major field.
  • Literacy (communication and computational skills, technological skills).
  • “Just-in-time” learning ability that enables graduates to learn and apply new knowledge and skills as needed—often referred to as lifelong learning skills.
  • Ability to make informed judgments and decisions (correctly define problems, gather and analyze relevant information, and develop and implement appropriate solutions).
  • Ability to function in a global community, including knowledge of different cultures and contexts as well as foreign language skills.
  • A range of characteristics and attitudes are needed for success in the workplace. These include flexibility and adaptability; ease with diversity; motivation and persistence; high ethical standards; creativity and resourcefulness; ability to work with others, especially in groups; and demonstrated ability to apply these skills to complex problems in real-world settings.

The literature also cites a distinctive set of institutional characteristics and behaviors that increase the likelihood that the above outcomes will be realized. These characteristics include:

  • A clear statement of intended learning outcomes that provides explicit direction for assessment. (The institution should be able to state in concrete terms what outcomes it intends for its undergraduates.)
  • Satisfactory performance in undergraduate and graduate education and on relevant licensing and certification examinations.
  • Direct assessments of exiting students’ abilities that are consistent with institutional goals and demonstrate the “value added” by the institution, given students’ starting points.
  • Students’ satisfaction with the institution’s contribution to the attainment of their goals, relative to the costs incurred.

In a national survey of employers conducted by Northeastern University, a large majority of human resources leaders said that the value of educational credentials in hiring has either increased (48%) or held steady (29%) over the last five years (Gallagher, 2019).

In a recent survey of 510 employers from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and Collegis Education, respondents said they value alternative credentials but have concerns over assessing the quality of education and understanding the skills and competencies they represent. Survey respondents selected challenges they associated with assessing candidates whose resumes include alternative credentials. Almost half of them (46%) said they were unsure about the quality of the education; 42% said the same about the skills and competencies credentials represent; and 33% weren’t sure how the credentials aligned with job standards.

AAC&U’s 2021 survey of executives and hiring managers conducted in partnership with Hanover Research explores employers’ views on a variety of issues, including what constitutes workforce preparedness. They also were asked what educational outcomes and experiences they value most when making hiring decisions, and shared their perceptions of recent graduates’ levels of preparedness for entry-level positions as well as for promotion and career advancement. The survey focuses on employer value in higher education and the value of a college degree, especially a liberal arts education. While it did not focus on the increasing array of non-degree credentials, the following findings from the report may be instructive to those seeking to design new credentials:

  • Equip students to name and reflect on the skills that matter to them in order to communicate how their education, regardless of their chosen major, connects to workforce needs.
  • Credential providers can make mindsets and aptitudes an explicit part of learning that occurs inside and outside the classroom. Dispositions, ways of knowing, and habits of mind are not solely innate traits. Like other skills and abilities, a college education cultivates these capacities through curricular and co-curricular learning. Making these explicit can help students better understand what they can contribute as professionals.
  • Credential providers can assess skills and mindsets to make sure that graduates are prepared to succeed. Employers consistently report that, although most college graduates may be prepared to succeed in entry-level positions, far fewer have the full set of skills needed to advance or be promoted. The only way for campus leaders and educators to truly know if students are prepared to enter the workforce is to assess them on outcomes—at the beginning, middle, and end of the college journey.
  • Credential providers can ensure that high-impact learning experiences are equitably accessible to students from all backgrounds and that students are supported to succeed in these experiences. Job candidates with applied learning experiences have an edge in the hiring process. It’s not enough simply to make these learning experiences available on campus; equity in, access to, and success in these experiences must be a priority for campuses.
  • Credential providers can help equip students to tell employers their story. E-Portfolios or comprehensive learner records are better for this than transcripts. An ePortfolio provides a space for the student to reflect on his or her learning, connect outcomes to selected work samples, and showcase experiences. It can serve as a professional portfolio that works well in the job market.
  • The skills that matter to employers are not developed within a single course—or even a single college major. General education courses provide an entry point and foundational pathway for developing the skills, mindsets, and aptitudes that matter for workplace success. But that pathway must be aligned with majors to promote ongoing skill development, from cornerstone to capstone.

AAC&U: How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most

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