There Are 700K+ Credentials — and Counting. Which Ones Are ‘Quality’?

Sep 25, 2019

In 2016, Credential Engine set out to tally all the badges, degrees, certificates, licenses and diplomas available to denote educational attainment.

They’re still counting.

So far, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has found 738,428 unique credentials in the U.S., according to a new report published Wednesday. Almost half are offered by non-academic organizations.

What may sound like a meditative exercise in patience does have a practical purpose. Credential Engine hopes its database will eventually help people discern which credentials offer the most value for personal learning and employment opportunities.

Yet the nonprofit is not in the business of measuring the quality of credentials, says Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine. For that sort of judgment, students, workers and policymakers will have to turn elsewhere for now.

Perhaps to another nonprofit, the National Skills Coalition, which published its own report this week focused explicitly on establishing a definition of what counts as a quality non-degree credential. Its answer: one that offers evidence of competencies and corresponds clearly with positive employment outcomes in fields that have substantial job opportunities.

NSC argues that starting with a clear definition will help policymakers and employers discern whether any of these thousands of credentials are, well, credible.

Crunching Credentials Data

Why expend all this effort researching credentials? Both reports note that most jobs available today require some education or training beyond a high school diploma, and that on average, workers who have post-secondary credentials earn more than those who don’t. Because of this, state governments and organizations like the Lumina Foundation have set goals to increase the proportion of Americans who earn additional certifications.

Yet the data available on non-degree programs is scant. Some states track licensure and apprenticeship programs, but even among those that do, not all share information with entities like the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information Data System or State Wage Interchange System, according to NSC.

To help people make better decisions about which of the many education and workforce training programs to use, both reports call for the creation of better consumer information tools.

“If you’re a 17-year-old or 25-year-old or returning veteran who wants to go into the IT field in Indianapolis, there had not been a way until we began doing our work to let that person understand the relative differences between pathways,” Cheney says.

But the studies differ in their approaches to analyzing the myriad options.

Credential Engine is surveying the landscape first, trying to develop a comprehensive dataset before coming to any particular conclusions.

“We haven’t had the ability to look across all credentials to allow us to have some sense of how to make the best determination of quality,” Cheney says. “We’re not here to say which is a better choice, we’re just here to say this information is available.”

Using information from sources including the U.S. Department of Education, Class Central and international certification associations, the Counting Credentials report splits credentials into 17 categories—including microcredentials, course completion certificates, occupational licenses, military certifications and digital badges—offered by four types of institutions: secondary schools, MOOC providers, post-secondary schools and non-academic organizations.

To organize its findings, the nonprofit has built a searchable credential registry that uses common language and linked data to make information easier to find and compare.

Meanwhile, National Skills Coalition is looking first at quality assurance to help workers save time and money, employers find skilled labor, schools learn about market needs and officials feel confident throwing support behind non-degree options, such as making them eligible for public financial aid.

The nonprofit worked with officials from 12 states to define a quality non-degree credential as “one that provides individuals with the means to equitably achieve their informed employment and educational goals. There must be valid, reliable, and transparent evidence that the credential satisfies the criteria that constitute quality,” according to the report.

The report breaks this down into more detail, calling for credentials associated with evidence of “substantial job opportunities” and employment and earnings outcomes.

One reason NSC seeks to emphasize quality from the outset is that people who participate in non-degree credential programs tend to be more vulnerable members of the labor force: older adults, people of color and people with less earning power.

“A well-designed quality assurance system can help individuals identify the right program and credential for their circumstances while avoiding low-quality or ineffective options, protecting students from being the victims of fraud and abuse,” the report says. “It can also help overcome the negative associations that employers may have regarding individuals with NDCs [non-degree credentials], making it easier for disadvantaged worker populations to enter and advance in employment.”


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