Apples-to-Apples Credentialing to Improve Access & Equity Outcomes
Written by: John Lane, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association
Earning meaningful credentials at higher rates is the longstanding vision state governments propose to sustain and improve states’ economic enterprises. With recommendations from stakeholders across government, education, business, and community sectors, policymakers often translate this aspiration for higher postsecondary attainment into mandates through new statutes and regulations, statewide initiatives, and agency policies and guidelines. Tennessee’s ‘Drive to 55’ and ‘60x30TX’ in Texas are noteworthy examples. The underlying principle that a state’s economic development is a function of its workforce development, which is a function of a better-trained labor market, relies on accurate, accessible, and aligned information about its many educational pathways and training options.
Yet, well-defined, comparable information about postsecondary credentials available across the country can remain elusive, especially for students. By the most recent count, nearly one million unique credentials exist in the U.S., from badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications, and apprenticeships at non-academic providers through micro-credentials, degrees, and certificates available through postsecondary institutions and exclusively online providers. For students, workers, employers, and policymakers, the variety of credentials and their curricular content can make understanding the value of a particular credential difficult to discern. A reliable and widely accessible system for cataloging and comparing credentials, a credential registry, can help improve the understanding of education-to-career pathways for stakeholders, especially students, enabling a proverbial apples-to-apples credentials comparison that supports broader awareness of education-to-career pipelines, and, therefore, can support more equitable outcomes for students.
The extent of available credentials is also notable because policy leaders attempting to assess both existing conditions and indicators for success often discover early on that questions about the numbers and types of majors available in current associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees in-state do not encompass this breadth nor meaningful information about credentials. In turn, a limited frame of reference can limit their ability to develop or refine policy. Indeed, many states have no actionable credential registry of current programs that includes not only their designations but also program cost and length, career pathway information, skills earned, and income earning potential. Often, leaders discover that better starting questions include, “What are all of our state’s current credential categories region by region, and what is our definition of a credential, especially one that is meaningful?” Asking these can help a state begin to match its priorities with its planning, for example, matching urgently needed improved rural healthcare access with more healthcare facilities, degrees, and training programs, including nursing or physician’s assistants (whose practitioners can, among other essential services, prescribe medications in underserved areas where physicians are in short supply). Moreover, these questions challenge state leaders to ask what needs to be done to create and maintain such a credential registry because what is problematic for policymakers (the lack of actionable information) is daunting for students trying to determine the best pathways for their aspirations that can also help meet state needs.
Student-facing accessibility to data that informs and supports their educational and career goals may be the highest public service of state credential registry work, and accessibility to optimized credential systems can begin to help mitigate longstanding information inequities for students and their families, especially those from marginalized groups, seeking to make the best decisions for themselves and the communities they could serve. Too many testimonies recur among marginalized students, whether first generation, ruralized, low-income, or students of color, about program confusion, cost and time to degree, entrance requirements, skills, workforce outcomes, and earning potential, despite many current academic advisement protocols and disclaimers about pathways. For example, is this program a pathway to state teacher licensure or engineering licensure? What examinations and their costs are embedded in the degrees? Should I enter the field at the associate degree level, bachelor’s, or master’s level, and will the education required change over time after I start my career? Will this credential be recognized for employment in other states should I relocate across the country? Too often, advisement disclaimers encourage students, or professionals in continuing education or recertification programs, to take the initiative to ensure a curriculum leads to their licensure or other workforce goals, ostensibly transferring the burden of advising responsibility onto students who could benefit the most from better advisement and communication from their institutions or other training providers.
Pandemic conditions, including the resulting severe workforce and economic downturns, have only heightened the urgency for information and the pressure on marginalized new and returning students to capitalize on life-changing opportunities for postsecondary education as a transformative agent. However, even as some states and the country report returning to pre-pandemic low unemployment levels in various sectors, the pandemic and economic downturn also present possibilities for workers to gain new market-ready skills and for markets across all sectors, whether local, state, or national, to publicize the skills and credentials-match needed for the jobs offered in their states’ recovering economies. State policymakers are recognizing this opportunity by enacting new mandates that make access to or information about meaningful credentials (“credentials of value”) more consistent and readily available to students. The National Conference of State Legislatures cites multiple states planning to provide information to students about available credentials or identification of high-value credentials, including Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, and Utah. Implementing these mandates will improve communication and transparency to students and their families to help support their goals.
Of note, Connecticut Senate Bill 1202 directs the state’s Office of Higher Education to create a database of all credentials offered in the state by 2023 and directs the state’s Office of Workforce Strategy to determine credentials of value based on workforce need, cost, completion rate and time to completion, among other criteria. Florida’s REACH Act (2021) and Texas House Bill 3767 (2021) also put in motion the development of comprehensive state registries of all credentials in their states. Common to each of these examples, and in various stages of adoption in half the states, is the use of the credential transparency description language (CTDL), a standard data format that ensures that credential and competency information is open, linked, and interoperable both within the state and across state (and national) lines. The use of CTDL in these examples advances the alignment needed for state stakeholders and students to more easily access and better understand the credentials that are offered.
A question for further consideration is how such credential registries may support specialized program offerings that substantially mitigate costs and enable access and completion through regionalized cooperation, leveraging the potential of interstate collaboration. Both the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) are working with Credential Engine to support the credential transparency efforts of the states in their region. Additionally, the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) longstanding Regional Contract Program facilitates cross-state offerings in specialized disciplines, including dentistry and optometry, through three to four graduate-level programs.
SREB serves students from participating states through substantial state-supported tuition discounts through this contract program. This initiative is important since implementation and maintenance costs for programs like these have been prohibitive for individual institutions (and consequently, their students) since agreements began in the 1940s. Despite the cost, seats in such programs remain in high demand, and careers in the fields and related disciplines are promising for improving student and state outcomes. Support for credential registries can promote awareness to students too often unaware of their education and career options and lead to dialogue about ways states can align and communicate the many credentials cooperatively both within and across state lines that can help mitigate information, access, and ultimately, completion and placement inequities.
“P-20W” is one recognized designation for this collaboration (pre-school to doctorate levels [i.e., “grade 20”] to the workforce).