The Rapidly Changing Landscape of College Credentialing: Recommendations for State Authorizing Agencies
Written by Angela Boatman and Katrina Borowiec, Boston College
Growing numbers of students are enrolling in short cycle, occupationally oriented training programs such as badges, bootcamps, and other micro-credentials (Brown & Kurzweil, 2017; Inside Higher Ed, 2020). These short-term credentials promise a new type of educational product closely aligned with the job market and accommodating to the needs of diverse learners. While they may be offered in traditional two- or four-year degree-granting colleges or universities, most are offered by outside, non-degree-granting providers as stand-alone programs.
The rapid expansion of alternative credentials has led to a staggering number of programs. A 2021 report from the non-profit Credential Engine identified nearly 550,000 credentials offered from “non-academic” organizations, including digital badges and online course-completion certificates, with 9,390 additional credentials granted by MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) providers. Despite the sharp increase in enrollment in these programs during the past five years, the majority of these programs do not require accreditation from a postsecondary regional accreditation board. Consequently, state lawmakers have struggled with determining how to regulate these new offerings without stifling innovation.
In an effort to understand how states currently do or do not regulate these entities and how they envision their role in regulating non-degree educational credentials, we spoke with higher education leaders from 14 distinct agencies/organizations, including state agencies in California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Washington, as well as leaders representing organizations spanning multiple states. In our interviews, we discussed the changing landscape of alternative credential programs; the indicators used in the authorization process; issues of non-compliance and the appropriate response; and consumer protection mechanisms. We find that while parts of the authorization process differ across our sample states, several shared challenges for authorizing agencies remain. These challenges include:
● Limited budgets and resources, including human resources, to conduct authorization reviews and renewals;
● Delayed response time from credential-providing institutions when asked to provide information, as well as limited knowledge of the authorization process;
● Difficulty assessing the quality of institutions’ self-reported data;
● Authorization agencies’ old or outdated data reporting systems.
Examining the state authorization process raises important questions about how to best design and implement this process, particularly for a market and curriculum that is changing so rapidly. Drawing upon the perspectives of the participants in our interviews and supported by other organizations in the non-degree credentialing landscape, we propose several policy recommendations for practitioners and policymakers responsible for designing and implementing authorization processes for short-term career oriented credentials.
Recommendations for State Authorizing Agencies
· Collect and publish outcome data on all postsecondary offerings in the state.
· Identify concrete, measurable standards for “quality” credentials and develop a registry of “quality” non-degree credentials in the state.
· Identify the organizational bottlenecks that cause delays in the authorization process.
· Encourage accredited postsecondary institutions in the state to explore the application of stackable credentials toward an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Recommendations for Policymakers
· Legislate the development of a state longitudinal, student-level data system and connect this data system to earnings data.
· Restructure Pell Grant programs and state-based financial aid to support non-degree skills training.
· Incentivize institutions to forge new and lasting relationships with employers.
Our recommendations highlight the data needed to evaluate credential quality and the importance of encouraging collaborations across state agencies and educational providers. Effective collaboration depends on how nimble and effective colleges and universities are in authenticating and recognizing postsecondary learning wherever it occurs. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked considerable change and innovation in the higher education sector, and individuals displaced from their jobs by the pandemic might be seeking opportunities to enhance their skills and/or change fields. This makes it an opportune time for higher education institutions to evaluate their offerings and to facilitate collaboration toward improving educational opportunities for all students — but perhaps most especially for the most economically vulnerable populations.
Relatedly, the field of higher education needs evidence that non-degree programs are a viable path to employment and financial security. Currently, the authorization process focuses largely on the institutional inputs (e.g., resources, faculty, curriculum), with limited information available on the earnings outcomes of graduates. We need future research to examine the economic returns to short-term training programs, disaggregated by student demographics and area of study. These programs have the potential to open access to postsecondary education by providing affordable alternatives to the traditional college pathway. To what extent are they helping underserved populations access higher education or reinforcing the status quo by further enhancing the academic qualifications of already privileged populations? Whether or not students from diverse backgrounds are served by these programs and eventually pursue traditional postsecondary degrees remains an unanswered — but critical — question.
This blog post is based upon a report that is one in a series coordinated by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and supported by Arnold Ventures. The series is designed to generate innovative empirical research regarding state authorization processes and policies that can serve as a foundation for future research and policy in this understudied area.
You can find our report here: https://sheeo.org/wpcontent/uploads/2021/08/Boatman_Borowiec.pdf
Brown, J., & Kurzweil, M. (2017). The complex universe of alternative postsecondary credentials and pathways. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/academy/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/CFUE_Alternative-Pathways/CFUE_Alternative-Pathways.pdf
Credential Engine. (2021). Counting U.S. postsecondary and secondary credentials. https://credentialengine.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Counting-Credentials-2021.pdf
Inside Higher Ed. (2020). On-ramps and off-ramps: Alternative credentials and emerging pathways between education and work. https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/IHE-Alternative-Credentials-and-Emerging-Pathways-2020.pdf