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

Why this is important?

The postsecondary credentialing system in the U.S. is in crisis. The centuries-old, traditional four-tiered system (associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate) can be insurmountable for many and punitive to those who do not complete any given tier. This system no longer serves our country’s social and economic needs.

Problem and Purpose
For too many learners, the only postsecondary credentials that count are four tiers of degrees (associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate). Degrees are widely recognized and often required to be considered for employment. This singular focus on degrees punishes those who attend college but do not complete a traditional degree, often treating them as if they have no postsecondary-level learning.

The impacts are far-reaching and serious for all but America’s most entitled populations. Credentialing is an equity issue. The differentials of employment and income between those who do/don’t have a college degree are blatant. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the disparities, with millions needing to upskill and reskill to remain or become re-employed.

Many are calling for the U.S. to embrace the growing array of shorter-term credentials and integrate them with degrees. Credentialing seals learning into qualifications that are recognizable, transferable, and usable to gain and sustain employment and continue education. Without formally recognized credentials, the system treats individuals as if they have no knowledge and skills, even if they have acquired equivalent learning through work and life experiences or previous college coursework. The U.S. needs a postsecondary system that captures uncounted learning and validates that learning to enable individuals to be recognized for what they know and can do.

This issue is not only an American issue; many other nations are embarked in similar efforts to incentivize and recognize microcredentials alongside degrees.

The purpose of the Credential As You Go initiative is to develop a nationally recognized incremental credentialling system as a systemic, structural transformation to a postsecondary education model centered on degrees.

Larger Context: Moving Toward an Integrated Learn and Work Ecosystem
Incremental credentialing is a big piece of building a 21st Century learn and work ecosystem, and will be developed in collaboration and integration with initiatives advancing other pieces of the future ecosystem. Much work already is underway to integrate cycles of learning and working. Key examples are the many excellent efforts focused on clarifying competencies that are needed for learning and working, aligning education and workplace learning, creating better transparency of and connecting credentials across education and industry, integrating industry credentials and prior learning into the degree system, developing new student learning records that incorporate learning acquired outside the traditional classroom, developing employer hiring systems based on hiring for skills, and developing common language and data structures to increase interoperability.

However, all these efforts are hindered by the current legacy degree system. The inflexibility of existing degree structures is out of sync with the needs of learners to be able to gain the knowledge and skills required of living, learning, and working in the 21st century. Moving to a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system does not negate current degree structures, but rather embraces them within a larger context of an array of credentials that provide learners with recognition and validation of what they know and can do as they progress through their lives.

Credential As You Go: Incremental Credentialing
Incremental credentialing enables individuals to be credentialed as they gain knowledge and skills, not delaying recognition to only when achieving one of the four-degree levels. A nationally recognized transferable incremental credentialing system would improve access to, persistence in, and successful attainment of high-quality, postsecondary and industry credentials that lead to further education and employment for all learners. Learning that is currently uncounted will be captured and validated, marrying informal and formal learning as a normal practice of the nation’s talent development system.

Incremental credentialing provides multiple pathways and arrays of opportunities for learners at all levels to meet their goals. It also has the potential to decrease the confusion and chaos around the current multitude of existing credentials which sit outside the traditional educational system. A nationally recognized transformed system needs to be purposeful and designed around learner-centered principles that align learning and working.

Improving Education and Employment Outcomes