DRIVERS OF CHANGE TO TRANSFORM THE NATION’S DEGREE-CENTRIC POSTSECONDARY SYSTEM TO AN INCREMENTAL CREDENTIAL SYSTEM
The U.S. postsecondary credentialing system is at a critical crossroad. Four key drivers are stimulating unheralded innovations to redesign our system: (1) a dated degree-centric system, (2) credential expansion, (3) equity, and (4) rapidly changing 21st Century workforce needs.
Mindful of these drivers, Credential As You Go is calling for a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system to capture and validate uncounted learning that enables individuals to be recognized for what they know and can do. An incremental system recognizes that many types of credentials (degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, badges, microcredentials) may document an individual’s learning; and that credentials are awarded by many types of providers including community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, third-party organizations, companies, military, and state licensing boards.
Although incremental credentialing is not new, it is not the design of the U.S. learn-and-work system. There are increasing calls to link the array of credentials of value —degree and non-degree — into an understandable, coherent system. This requires a redesign of credentialing systems across states and higher education institutions to reduce confusion, increase learning recognition, and integrate what people know and can do.
FOUR KEY DRIVERS OF CHANGE
The centuries-old four-tiered degree system (associate, baccalaureate, masters, doctorate/professional) is insurmountable for many and hinders those who do not complete any given tier. Some 39 million adults have some college experience but no degree, and another 81 million have no postsecondary experience (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2022; U.S. Census Bureau, 2021); together they represent 52 percent of the adult population. Put another way, about one out of six adults dropped or stopped out from college with no credential to show what they have accomplished. The role of credentialing is to seal learning into qualifications that are recognizable, transferable, and usable, so that individuals can gain and sustain employment and continue their education. But the current system treats individuals as if they have acquired no valuable knowledge or skills through prior college coursework, work, and life experiences. The result is a system that does not adequately serve the nation’s social and economic needs.
The U.S. credential landscape is increasingly confusing and chaotic. There are nearly one million unique credentials awarded from four types of credential providers: postsecondary educational institutions, massive open online course providers, nonacademic providers, and secondary schools (Credential Engine, 2021). The demand for new types of educational credentials has grown substantially in the last 5 years—especially since the start of the pandemic, driven in part by growing demand for certificate programs and alternative credential offerings (Gallagher, 2021). The number of open badges awarded, for example, nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020, from 24 million to 43 million (Gallagher, 2021). As the acceptance of new types of credentials has grown, a number of employers have become learning providers in their own right—moving beyond training employees or providing staff members with tuition assistance for higher education to also develop their own curricula and expand their public-facing credential offerings (Gallagher & Zanville, 2021).
Credentialing is a serious equity issue. About 48 percent of adults aged 25 years and older in the U.S. have a college degree; an additional 15 percent have some college but no degree. Degree completion by race-ethnicity reveals major disparities: 67 percent of Asian adults and 53 percent of White, non-Latinx adults have a college degree, compared to only 38 percent of African American adults and 30 percent of Latinx adults. African Americans are also the group with the highest percentage of adults who have some college and no degree (18 percent; U.S. Census Bureau, 2021), and they furthermore carry the highest student debt load among any racial group (Hanson, 2020). Individuals without a postsecondary degree are at a disadvantage to obtain living-wage earnings. A fair postsecondary education system is needed to capture uncounted learning and validate that learning to enable all individuals to be recognized for what they know and can do.
The nation’s workforce is markedly different than it was 40 years ago. While employers still need workers with industry-specific knowledge and skills (i.e., technical or hard skills), employers increasingly value 21st-century skills (i.e., human skills, power skills, soft skills). Some employers struggle to find workers with the knowledge or skills to enable their companies to remain competitive, because the specific knowledge and skills needed are often not well documented or credentialed. Additionally, some workers are finding that their knowledge and skills are no longer up to date and may even be obsolete as workforce demands keep changing.
The skills dilemma—what skills are needed, for which industry sectors and job levels, and who provides training for them—has important implications for workforce preparation and credentialing. Three findings in the literature are especially relevant to the call for an incremental credentialing system: (a) our system is underperforming in today’s fast-paced and changing world in which lifelong learning is essential, (b) employers are struggling to find workers with 21st-century skills, and (c) educational institutions are slow to change (Zaber et al., 2019). The latter finding is especially troublesome for higher education, as continued reliance on outdated curricula, instructional models, and credentialing systems limits institutions’ ability to meet the changing needs of the workforce (Zaber et al., 2019, p. 1).
Zaber, M., Karoly, L., Whipkey, K. (2019).A System That Works: How a New Workforce Development and Employment System Can Meet the Needs of Employers, Workers, and Other Stakeholders . RAND Corporation Research Brief 10074-RC https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10074.html