Who can make sense of the U.S.'s 738,000 credentials?

(Credential Engine)

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A recent study found there are more than 738,000 unique postsecondary and secondary credential opportunities in the United States. But this massive credential landscape proves difficult for employers and students to navigate without reliable data on programs’ relevance or a standard way to map them onto various career paths.

According to the report, written by Credential Engine, a nonprofit group for raising awareness of credential programs, the recent count more than doubles its 2018 estimate of approximately 334,000 credentials. Yet not much is known about the value and impact of each of these credentials or whether their curriculums and learning outcomes meet the needs and goals of the workforce.

“This new estimate gives us a much clearer picture of the vast credential landscape—but it also suggests that we need far better tools and information to navigate the daunting number of credentials available today,” Credential Engine executive director Scott Cheney said in a press release published alongside the report on Wednesday.

Critical information, such as the costs and outcomes of these programs, is still missing, he said, and as a result students are unable to make informed decisions about what educational path is best suited to their academic advancement and career goals.

After the 2007 recession, which wiped out many jobs held by workers with a high school education or less, post-secondary education became increasingly important, with a majority of new jobs created going to workers with college educations, according to the report. However, only about one-third of young people in the United States have a four-year degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As a result, non-degree credentials have become an important means by which the other two-thirds of Americans can acquire marketable skills and advance their careers.

In general, credentials are valuable for career advancement. According to the Credential Engine report, Americans with non-degree credentials have improved odds of economic mobility, financial stability, and higher satisfaction with their education and career pathways over those with only a high school diploma. And by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require at least some postsecondary training, but not necessarily a degree, according to Credential Engine.

However, determining which credential program is the most relevant for each individual and which ones produce the kind of learning outcomes employers are looking for is a huge challenge considering the number of options students have available.

Although this report provides a snapshot of available credentials, the number and types of credentials are in constant flux, reacting to changes in market need and innovations in education. As a result, this static count became out of date as soon as it was published and proves that in order to best help students and employers find relevant programs, the list needs to be able to be responsive to the constant changes in the credential landscape.

The Credential Registry serves as a solution to that problem. Created by Credential Engine in 2017, this open-source repository stores data on education and training programs, increasing the amount of credential transparency to be used by employers and students.

“For too long, students and consumers alike have had to fly blind when it comes to making choices about education and training options,” Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board in Washington State and chair of the Credential Engine board of directors, said in the press release. “By participating in and leveraging the Credential Registry, state leaders are now taking bold steps to provide a greater degree of information — and ultimately control — to education and workforce stakeholders.”

Additionally, both the report and registry can help policymakers understand the landscape of available credentials.  Its creators hope to inform surrounding policy and practice to ensure the current mix of credentialing programs in the United States is equipped to power the economy and promote individual mobility.

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