Alternative credentials continue to grow in popularity, though issues remain with transparency around their quality, higher education experts said during a panel on Tuesday at the Education Writers Association's annual conference, held in Baltimore.
The exact number of credentials offered in the U.S. is unknown, but there are some recent estimates, noted Martin Kurzweil, a director at Ithaka S+R. In 2015, institutions that received Title IV funds awarded roughly 1 million certificates, and there were 500,000 registered apprenticeships. And in 2016, 18,000 students completed a coding boot camp, and 35 million enrolled in a MOOC, though only about 6% finished a course.
As the number of credentials grows, so do efforts to help prospective students navigate the sprawling market.
"There are some big dark spaces in the landscape that we just don’t know very much about," Kurzweil said. "Quality assurance for these programs … is really patchy."
A growing market
The rising interest in credentials is partly attributable to growth in "good jobs" for middle-skilled workers, or those with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree, said Van Ton-Quinlivan, an executive in residence at the Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Palo Alto, California.
Middle-skills positions account for 24% of all such "good jobs" — meaning those that pay at least $35,000 a year — in the U.S., according to research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Much of that growth is attributable to expansion in technical fields such as electrical engineering and law enforcement, while manufacturing has largely declined, the center notes.
Two-year institutions can help put students on a path to a good middle-skills job, Ton-Quinlivan said, but there is still a need to ensure those programs are paying off.
The California Community Colleges, for instance, recently analyzed regional labor market data across the state to determine which industries were adding jobs. The 114-college system used that information to craft pathways to help students make better-informed decisions about their careers and to provide them with more structure to complete the relevant education.
The system also rolled out its Strong Workforce Stars initiative, which ranks career education programs based on their ability to produce graduates who make more money than before they earned a credential, earn a living wage and work within their fields of study.
A national credentials database
Similar efforts exist on a national scale. In March, the nonprofit Credential Engine, which has built out a national database of credentials, announced it is partnering with six companies to help colleges and other educational providers publish information about the credentials they offer. The national registry uses a "common language" to make it easier for prospective students to compare programs, according to Credential Engine.
That may help improve a common issue, which is that credentials often aren't recognized beyond the local market of the institution offering them. "We need to think beyond local borders because we're not going to address this issue and really unlock mobility for folks if we remain so fragmented in the way we think about credentials," said Danielle Goonan, senior manager at the Walmart Foundation.
Partnerships with employers have also been key, Ton-Quinlivan said. Last year, for example, 19 community colleges in Los Angeles teamed up with Amazon Web Services to offer a "regionally recognized" cloud computing certificate. Similar partnerships have emerged elsewhere between postsecondary institutions and tech companies, including with Google and Facebook.
Walmart has also been making "big bets" on the credential marketplace, Goonan said, adding that the company wants to recognize its retail employees for the skills they pick up on the job.
"How do we ensure service sector workers' skills are validated, valued and can be signaled out to other employers; that they have a sense of which credential might make sense for which career pathway that they want to go into; and how to ensure that pathway actually leads to a good job?" Goonan asked. "Right now ... they can't do that."
To that end, Walmart awarded a grant last year to Credential Engine to "identify, capture, and publish" industry credentials in the retail, hospitality and related sectors. The company also offers financial assistance for workers to pursue an associate or bachelor's degree in topics such as business and supply chain management through the University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University.