By Deborah Seymour & Deborah Everhart
Today’s economy and society depend on increasingly higher levels of knowledge and the ability to evolve rapidly and adapt to changing circumstances. Credentials have proliferated to meet the diverse needs of our 21st century knowledge economy, including not only degrees, but also certificates, professional/industry certifications, licensures and badges.
And students’ goals in pursuing these credentials also are changing rapidly. Bachelor’s degree holders are returning to community colleges to “skill up,” and employers in some fields are increasingly hiring coding boot-camp graduates. Badges are gaining currency as supplements to or even replacements for traditional credentials. The need for lifelong learning is a given.
But the diversity of credentials available for students does not always meet their needs, and unfortunately, the huge variety of options often causes confusion. There is a lack of shared understanding about what makes credentials valuable, how that value varies across different types of credentials for different stakeholders, what constitutes quality, and how credentials are connected to each other and the opportunities for people who have earned them. Who can determine what is the right credential for the right student at the right time?
For their part, students often lack clear pathways to help them understand processes such as credit for prior learning, transfer credit processes, and ways to connect different types of credentials. They also have difficulty comparing credentials—what they include, their market value, transferability, quality assurance, and other important factors.
At ACE, we regularly receive questions from students about how transcripts work in general, what kinds of work experience, training and certifications count toward degrees, which types of programs offer a veteran the best use of their military credit recommendations, how to use more than one transcript when applying for post-secondary study, and which campus office can answer all of their questions.
In this context, we have published two white papers that address these critical questions, Communicating the Value of Competencies and Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials. Scores of experts from higher education, policy, workforce and national organizations worked together to analyze:
- How employers value and assess students’ competencies
- The quality dimensions of connected credentials (transparency, modularity, portability, relevance, validity, and equity)
- How educational institutions can improve their credentials and clearly articulate competencies to provide greater value and meet the needs of stakeholders
Higher education leaders and decision makers face many challenges in evolving their institutions to meet 21st century demands. Today’s students have far more diverse needs than in the past. Most need to be able to stop and start their education over time, both because they are working and have other responsibilities and because the competencies required in their careers are constantly changing. Many need targeted credentials that don’t demand as much time and expense as a degree. Most bring prior credits, work experience and other demonstrable achievements that could be usefully applied toward credentials.
Many creative approaches to these needs are emerging, and credentials could potentially evolve to help increasing numbers of people gain and articulate the competencies they need for successful careers, contributions to communities of practice and solving problems both large and small. The framing premise of the ACE white papers is that higher education leaders and decision makers are well-positioned to improve credentials in ways that are appropriate for their institutions and communities—and in ways that address the needs of their own students.
All stakeholders in our credentialing ecosystems benefit from making credentials more transparent, modular, portable, relevant, valid and equitable. Ultimately, the key benefit to evolving our credentials is to help more students attain the right credential at the right time, again and again over a lifetime of learning.