- As nondegree credentials become more common across higher education, a standard system to measure and ensure their quality will be critical, explains a new report from the Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations.
- The researchers provide a broad framework for doing so, including by focusing a credential's design and the demonstration of its competencies; how it's recognized in the market; and how to ensure its stated outcomes have value.
- Employers and educational institutions often tout these credentials as a low-cost way to quickly upskill, but the authors note that common quality standards are critical to ensuring value and equity.
"There's so much concern about getting a job and hedging your bets in this labor market that people are willing to … risk a lot of money on these kinds of credentials," Michelle Van Noy, associate director of Rutgers' Education and Employment Research Center and a co-author of the report, told Education Dive in an interview. "Particularly vulnerable are people who don't have a lot of economic resources and who don't have a lot of educational background. There's a real danger that if we don't think carefully about quality, people could be taken advantage of."
Nondegree credentials run the gamut from credit and noncredit certificates to industry certifications and licensure. Apprenticeships, badges and microcredentials also fall onto the spectrum.
It's unknown exactly how many nondegree credentials there are. But their wide variation in format, objective and design supports the need for more information about what each entails and what the expected benefits are, Van Noy said.
Some such efforts are underway. At the state level, improvements in longitudinal data systems could improve knowledge on outcomes for workers with nondegree credentials. Nationally, the nonprofit Credential Engine is creating a registry of all credentials and a common language to discuss them, while the National Student Clearinghouse is working to capture industry certification data.
A recent report from The Institute for College Access and Success found such programs "vary tremendously" in length, enrollment, focus and outcomes and that state-level data on them is limited.
Whether and how employers accept credentials also plays a role in their value. Because of their variety, nondegree credentials aren't as easy for employers to understand as a bachelor's degree, for instance. "A lot of the value can come from knowledge and awareness of the credential," Van Noy said. "If the employer doesn't know what it is, they are less likely to use it."
Credentials developed together by employers and colleges can help create that familiarity, although they may be limited to use in that region.
"With all of these things there are trade-offs," Van Noy said. "We need to know what the trade-offs are and talk about them."
In their report, the Rutgers researchers make several recommendations to policymakers, employers and educational institutions. Those include raising awareness of the need to measure quality for nondegree credentials and promoting the use and understanding of that data. Colleges, they say, should also collect and report consistent data on nondegree credentials and integrate that data into its systems to track "movement into further education."