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Career-Focused Credentials Are Booming. We Need to Know What They’re Worth.

As adult-learner programs proliferate, there’s a lack of consistent, reliable quality standards to inform job seekers and employers. States should move to organize and oversee this complex marketplace.

Truck with student driver sign
Truck driving schools are typical of credential-awarding programs sought by adult learners eager to reskill and find better-paying jobs. (Shutterstock)
Short on time and money, adult learners increasingly are seeking credentials that lead directly to better jobs or promotions. In fact, research shows that two-thirds of adult learners considering further education prefer career-focused options over degrees.

And a growing number of employers — including the state governments of Utah, Pennsylvania and Maryland — are lifting degree requirements for many jobs as they embrace a fast-growing, increasingly complex set of career-focused credentials. These credentials — licenses, certificates, certifications and badges — are often awarded by short-term training programs, such as software coding boot camps or truck driving schools, to workers eager to reskill and improve their lives.

But this proliferation of credentials raises questions about their quality and value. Credential Engine reports that there are nearly 1 million credentials being offered in the U.S., only about 20 percent of which are traditional degrees awarded by colleges and universities.

A lack of consistent, reliable quality standards for career-focused credentials makes it difficult for job seekers to select the right programs and for employers to assess whether credentials demonstrate specific skills and competencies. For their part, policymakers need better standards and more outcomes data to inform their efforts to expand financial aid and other support to help learners access the credentials they need.

Making sense of this confusion is the focus of recent research by Rutgers University’s Education and Employment Research Center, supported by the Lumina Foundation. The team mapped out the complex credential marketplace to create a more systematic approach to quality.

The map includes a wide range of providers that offer and oversee career-focused credentials, including educators, trade unions, professional and industry associations, and state occupational licensing departments. It also details how policymakers, accreditors and others to increase transparency about credentials and share that information, such as through scorecards, frameworks and registries.

But a lack of coordination among these efforts adds to the confusion and may undermine credentials’ impact as engines of economic advancement. In short, it’s time for the career-focused credential world to get organized, and state policymakers have a major role in making that happen.

With a number of states investing in expanded access to workforce credentials, state leaders need to coordinate these efforts and take steps to define quality credentials. Doing so would ensure that job seekers have access to clear and consistent information about credentials and their links to jobs, that employers understand what each credential signifies, and that they use public resources wisely.

We also urge state leaders to:

  • Establish a clear statewide definition of quality for career-focused credentials.
  • Offer accessible information to job seekers about credentials that do or don’t meet those standards.
  • Assess and address racial and gender disparities in credential attainment, and work to ensure that historically underrepresented students have access to credentials that lead to well-paying jobs.
  • Ensure that state tuition assistance programs include high-quality, career-focused programs and credentials, particularly for adult learners.

We need a comprehensive — and tightly connected — system to promote and oversee the quality and value of credentials as we build a more robust, transparent and accessible credential marketplace. It’s critical to ensure that credentials deliver on their promises to learners, earners and employers.

Michelle Van Noy is the director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. Kermit Kaleba is the strategy director for Employment Aligned Credential Programs at the Lumina Foundation, which helps Americans continue learning beyond high school. The two leaders are partnering to improve pathways to learning, including through career-focused credentials.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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