Many nations are witnessing an explosion of interest in non-degree credentials such as certificates, industry-awarded certifications, occupational licenses, digital badges, and other microcredentials. While these credentials play a unique role in talent development and labor markets globally, surprisingly little is known about their prevalence, quality, evolution, and value for workers and employers. Unsurprisingly, American scholars studying these issues are disconnected from their counterparts in other nations.
In a global economy, developing and storing research data within your own nation’s knowledge halls is ill-advised. First, major employers and many workers operate across national boundaries. Second, advances in digital data standards to describe credentials enable new levels of transparency and comparability–across nations’ credentialing systems. Put plainly: important work could go faster and better if we could access information and share ideas beyond our national borders.
In a world trying to recover from a pandemic grimly shared–facing recovering economies, inequitable impacts on diverse populations, and unheralded upheavals in workforce systems–this is the time to work together. This is why we’re exploring the idea of an international network of networks focused on non-degree credentialing. The new alliance would be comprised of formally and informally organized groups already operating in other nations. The mission: come together to share knowledge and conduct cross-national research about non-degree credentialing with the goal of helping us all.
A quick look around the world
Efforts to understand and recognize non-degree credentials in the U.S. are still in the early stages. Many organizations are working on these issues such as Credential Engine, Workcred, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University, and Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. Our own Non-Degree Credentials Research Network (NCRN) founded at George Washington University in 2018 with assistance from Lumina Foundation currently sponsors information sharing and collaborative work among 77 research members from 16 states; and 100 affiliated stakeholders from 18 states.
Interest in short-term and non-degree credentials as tools for achieving public policy objectives was growing prior to COVID-19. In the wake of the pandemic and mass unemployment accompanying it, such interest has intensified. There is bipartisan support in Congress for expanding Pell grant eligibility to non-degree, short-term training programs. Two major federal grant programs intended to provide relief from COVID-19 in the summer of 2020–the Department of Education’s Education Stabilization Fund and the Department of Labor’s Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants–explicitly noted the potential role of non-degree programs in enabling rapid economic recovery.
Despite these developments, the U.S. trails many nations in work on non-degree credentials. GWU’s early studies of what other countries and regions are doing to increase access to non-degree programs has already identified many examples–in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Canada, Africa, Australia–and multinational projects that are benchmarking various countries to identify and promote best practices related to credentialing and skill development. Our preliminary investigations have resulted in several takeaways:
State of advancement in addressing policy issues
Many nations are more advanced than the U.S. in addressing the policy issues associated with non-degree credentialing as part of both their initial education pathways for students and continuous (lifelong) learning processes linked to workforce needs and upward mobility for individual workers.
There is noteworthy effort in Europe. A 2020 report to the European Commission identified an urgent need to expand the number of short-term programs available and opportunities to access them. The fall 2020 European Commission’s Communication on the European Education Area featured a commitment to work towards a European approach to microcredentials. This approach was also included in the European Skills Agenda launched in July that is expected to contribute to implementing the European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan.
Growing employer interest in non-degree credentials
There is growing interest in non-degree credentials among employers. In recent years, some of the largest global corporations such as Google, Apple, Starbucks, and IBM, have stopped requiring specific test scores or degrees from candidates applying for certain positions. These policies are being applied in some cases on a worldwide basis, bringing significant change to recruitment and human resource management practices in some parts of the world. New technologies for processing and evaluating candidates have the potential both to
amplify the role of non-degree credentials (e.g., by weeding out candidates without specific credentials or combinations of credentials) and to replace credentials with competency assessments. At the same time, platforms are emerging to provide students, employers, and universities with micro-internships that can result in microcredentials, potentially transforming access to work-based learning.
Provider interest in non-degree credentials
Postsecondary education and training providers have also demonstrated
growing interest in non-degree credentials. U.S. community colleges are increasingly embedding certifications into their curricula and awarding sub-baccalaureate credentials incrementally as individuals complete their requirements. This enables individuals to potentially earn several non-degree credentials concurrently while, or in the process of attaining, a degree. Similar developments are occurring in universities and non-traditional training providers. Europeans are also being offered new opportunities to earn non-degree credentials while working toward degrees. Several leading institutions are collaborating to create an entirely new virtual university based upon microcredentials, the European Council of Innovative Universities. Interest in work-based microcredentials in STEM occupations is also growing, with trade associations and labor unions in both Europe and the U.S. investing in the apprenticeship model for training skilled technical workers.
Researchers and policymakers focus on research
Researchers and policymakers in other nations appear to focus efforts initially on their research universities and micro-credentialing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In contrast, professional and trade associations seem to play a comparatively outsized role in the provision of non-degree credentials in the U.S., where most focus has been on the undergraduate level.
The importance of platforms–using technology to link education providers with companies and student needs–and to verify learning via blockchain (learning passports/wallets) are major concerns of the research and policy community globally.
Scholars in most nations appear to be receiving funds for work in this area from national ministries. This is not the case for U.S. researchers given our nation’s more decentralized systems.
What could we work on together?
The global network of scholars could tackle questions we would all benefit from knowing the answers to, such as:
- What typologies or glossaries of key terms are in use by nations to describe non-degree credentials, and how useable are the databases to support cross-national work?
- What are the key networks of researchers in the non-degree credential area worldwide? What does each network focus on? How long have they been in existence? Who funds the networks? What are their key products?
- In what ways are national qualification frameworks adding non-degree credentials to their frameworks? How are skills and competency frameworks being handled in these developments? And how could qualification frameworks be better designed to meet the needs of learners and employers in changing education and job markets?
- What are the top five areas of overlap in research interests between member networks in non-degree credentials? Why are these urgent, what are the plans–if any–to conduct research, and over what timeline?
- What are the main data sources researchers use for their research, and to what extent are they usable for international researchers?
- What is the landscape of employer-awarded non-degree credentialing worldwide, and to what extent are companies partnering with higher education in offering non-degree credentials, or working on their own and/or with third-party organizations or vendors?
Call to action
Interest in non-degree credentials is high as these credentials take their place on the worldwide stage. We can find ways to share knowledge and assist one another in disseminating information to communities worldwide as nations and regions plan and implement innovations in non-degree credentialing. None of us can afford to study key credentialing system changes in a vacuum. Lacking knowledge of international data and a common language around non-degree credentials will disadvantage U.S. researchers–and researchers around the world–in their work. To understand the non-degree credentialing world, the call to action must be: go global.