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Credential Transparency Illuminates Pathways to a Better Future

min read

Credential transparency enables stakeholders in learning and job ecosystems to explore and compare credentials in order to make better decisions about the best options for learning, advancement, and meaningful careers.

Credential Transparency Illuminates Pathways to a Better Future
Credit: amasterphotographer / Shutterstock.com © 2021

This article was originally published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 53, no. 4 (July 30, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Taylor & Francis Group.

In the United States and across the globe, we are faced with a strange and new dichotomy made sharper by the pandemic. There are streets in nearly every city and town where boarded-up shops are next to others with "help wanted" signs. As businesses were closed or customers evaporated, millions were thrust out of work. As those businesses attempt to reopen, they are desperate for labor. How can those who were thrust out of manufacturing, services, hospitality, and retail move across those sectors or into other sectors where opportunities exist or will emerge?

There has perhaps never been a clearer need for employers, government, and workers to identify needed and desired skills and competencies. It is also clear that there have never been more potential resources to make this happen. One such resource is credential transparency, which is achieved by publishing essential information about credentials and competencies that potential employees need and have, so that everyone can better understand what they represent and to what jobs they lead.

For higher education leaders, faculty, and staff, credential transparency creates many opportunities. First and foremost is the opportunity to improve equitable student success by ensuring that college credentials and their associated learning outcomes are clear to prospective and current students. Second, clear and transparent information on the value of credentials can be made available to all stakeholders, especially employers, enabling more equitable outcomes for all students by improving decision making, assuring competency, and encouraging data-based credential innovation to serve all students well.

In this article, we lay out the real and immediate opportunities for using public information about credentials and competencies to make sense of the credentialing landscape, build tools and systems that empower people to effectively use this information in decision making, and develop postsecondary credentialing practices in ways that strengthen public trust.

The Credential Landscape Is Vast and Complex

There are nearly one million credentials offered in the United States through education, training, licensing, certification, and other organizations. This vast and complex landscape of many different types of credentials is delineated in Credential Engine's newest research report, Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials.Footnote1 Approximately $1.9 trillion per year is spent on education and training in the United States. This represents educational institutions spending $1.3 trillion on educational activities, employers spending $516 billion on training and training wages, and state and federal grants to other schools, programs, and the military accounting for the remaining $79 billion.Footnote2

How well do we understand these credentials and expenditures? What sources of clear, unified information improve equity and help people make informed decisions about education and training? Unfortunately, we currently have too little transparency about credentials and their value. However, this landscape is rapidly changing as state and federal agencies as well as educational institutions, employers, and individual stakeholders are realizing the possibilities of linked open credential data that provide transparency as a public good.

Education and training credentials of all types—degrees, diplomas, certificates, professional certifications, licenses, badges, and apprenticeships—represent important opportunities for people to get ahead, but the current landscape is not easy to navigate (see figure 1). With so many credentials from which to choose, people get lost and lose out on opportunity. People need better information to navigate pathways to credentials, into the workforce, and toward their goals.

Figure 1. The Credential Landscape
map with roads leading in all different directions

Credential Engine is working with education, government, employer, and quality assurance organizations across learning and work ecosystems to improve credential transparency. Credential providers, government agencies, and others are sharing detailed information about their credentials and describing the knowledge and skills they confer in a clear and consistent metadata language, the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL).Footnote3

This work, combined with state and federal policy and actions, is contributing to linked open data networks that everyone can access for timely and trusted information about credentials, competencies, occupational alignments, transfer value, pathways, and more. These data fuel the creation of tools and systems that allow everyone to compare credentials and choose the best options for learning, advancement, and meaningful careers. Credential transparency provides information illuminating pathways to a better future.

What Does Credential Transparency Mean, in Practice?

Promoting equitable student success through credential transparency begins before students enroll, continues through their educational experience, and into career and life pathways. Credential transparency supports student success by making information about credentials public, easily accessible, and actionable, so that credentials can be better understood and pursued based on what it takes to earn them, what they represent, and the jobs to which they can lead.

The American Council on Education (ACE) white paper Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials defines six mutually reinforcing key characteristics of connected credentials: equity, modularity, portability, relevance, transparency, and validity.Footnote4 Among these, credential transparency is an enabler of the other key characteristics.

In this context, credential transparency involves a concrete, actionable description:

  • The competencies (knowledge and specialized skills, personal skills, and social skills) represented by the credential are clearly defined.
  • How the credential leads to careers and/or further education is clearly defined.
  • Information on multiple aspects of the credential— including the competencies it represents, its relationship to other credentials, its transfer value, its value in labor markets, and the cost of attaining it—is clearly provided to earners, issuers, endorsers, and consumers of credentials to enable them to determine value based on their needs and priorities.
  • The information provided about the credential is clear, enables comparison of credentials, persists, and, whenever possible, is based on shared standards, common language/descriptors, and/ or frameworks.
  • The quality assurance processes supporting the credential are clearly communicated to all stakeholders.
  • The requirements for renewal of the credential, where appropriate, are clearly defined to ensure a credential earner remains competent in the body of knowledge represented by the credential.
  • Transparency supports connectedness by making credentials easier to understand and compare, facilitating the definition and implementation of relationships among credentials. Transparency also supports connections to opportunities by helping all stakeholders understand how credentials are valuable.Footnote5

For example, credential transparency can be enabled through a career exploration site that helps people understand valuable learning and career pathways. A person can make a more informed decision about enrolling at a technical college in order to earn a credential that includes skills for in-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing. They can share the skills they have developed and achieved through digital credentials that qualify them to get a manufacturing job. And they can pursue supplementary credentials and gain further targeted skills to advance into management roles. Technologies now make this possible and necessary for more equitable economic growth.

Enabling Technologies

Given the scale and richness of the credential landscape, information needs to be combined from many different sources—educational institutions, government agencies, training providers, national and regional industry sectors, quality-assurance organizations, and more. These information sources all use different types of systems and different data structures. These differences are necessary to support specific needs—for example, a certification body needs to be able to revoke or renew credentials, whereas an educational institution needs degree audit capabilities. So, in order to aggregate comprehensive, open, searchable, and comparable data about all types and levels of credentials from all types of providers, Credential Engine uses a common, open standard metadata structure, CTDL.

CTDL is an open-source, humanly readable and machine-actionable schema, or metadata language, for describing credentials and their related information on the public web. It provides linked open data structure for over 700 characteristics related to describing credentials, including requirements, delivery methods, costs, financial assistance, duration, jurisdiction, competencies, learning opportunities, assessments, quality assurance, review processes, occupational alignments, and much more. For example, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana publishes information about their programs in advanced manufacturing and includes connections to industry certifications, specific occupations, costs, employment outcomes, and pathways to entry-level jobs and beyond to higher-paying management jobs.

Credential Engine supports an open, public, freely available registry that aggregates CTDL metadata. Any organization that has authority over credential-related information can increase credential transparency by publishing CTDL to the registry. Then stakeholders are able to catalog, organize, and compare credentials using this aggregated information. The registry does not collect or verify information about the credentials issued to individuals; rather, it organizes metadata, not personally identifiable information.

CTDL enables the development of tools, searches, and services that were not possible or were insufficient before, such as career exploration visualizations, eligible training provider comparisons, skills-based learning and hiring matches, and return-on-investment calculators. For example, Indiana's Commission for Higher Education, Department of Workforce Development, and other agencies are working together to provide information about in-demand jobs, connect that information to programs that lead to those jobs, identify financial assistance, and show the value of the credentials based on costs and employment outcomes.Footnote6

All stakeholders who hold or produce credential-related information are encouraged to publish it in CTDL so that it can strengthen these solutions and be openly available for anyone, anytime, anywhere to understand credentials.

Credential Transparency Can Improve Postsecondary Institutional Performance to Support Equitable Student Success

As noted above, the current economic environment provides an opportunity for credential transparency to assist campus leaders, faculty, and staff to make progress on improving equitable student outcomes and success. Sector-level presidential and professional associations are taking note and action by elaborating the benefits of credential transparency. ACE, Credential Engine, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), and EDUCAUSE have joined together with 12 other national higher education organizations to help institutions increase credential transparency.Footnote7

Driven by a growing demographic of nontraditional learners who will continue to need flexible learning opportunities to respond to technological disruption and automation throughout their lives, the rise of new credentials means that students in postsecondary education have more choices than ever before.Footnote8 Beyond the tremendous size of the marketplace of nearly a million credentials, people also have more pathways to credentials to consider than ever before, including apprenticeships, internships, online programs, competency-based programs, accelerated programs, prior learning assessments, documented credit, professional certificates, and bootcamps.

These changes, accelerated by COVID-19, are impacting institutional business models and practices. The diversity of credentials is creating demand among stakeholders for more transparency about their content, purpose, and outcomes. Potential employees want to know how credentials fit together so that they can transfer what they have learned across colleges and universities and into the labor market. Colleges and universities are looking for ways to communicate the outcomes of their educational programs beyond the completion of them. Institutions need to evaluate whether learning and credentials from other venues are comparable in order to ease transfer and recognition of prior learning, which may improve time to credential completion.Footnote9

Employers are managing talent acquisition, retention, and development, in part, by assessing the relationships between their needs for a skilled and effective labor force and the credentials that individuals hold. Public policy makers seek to assess whether taxpayer funds are being used to pay for credentials of value. Community organizations that provide credentials strive to assert their value and quality.

Currently, all these scenarios lack the depth, quality, and trust of information about credentials to make informed decisions about them. A healthy ecosystem of transparent credentials can improve the documentation, recognition, modularity, transferability, relevance, validity, portability—and importantly equity—of learning across education, work, and community settings for all types of credentials and providers.

The needs are clear and the technology is available. What is needed now is leadership to build institutional cultures supportive of credential transparency.

Making Credential Transparency a Reality in Higher Education

ACE, AACRAO, and EDUCAUSE are providing concrete leadership examples for the higher education community and their own constituents.

For example, ACE is advancing credential transparency by publishing CTDL data about transfer value. ACE's National Guide for learning evaluations and credit recommendations includes over 36,000 explicit definitions of transfer value for courses and learning programs from nonacademic providers, including employer training, professional assessments, and industry certifications.

Every year, more and more students come to college with prior learning, and they need opportunities to make progress toward their degrees by applying work they have already done and competencies they have already demonstrated. Colleges and universities have an opportunity to recruit these students and support their success by granting credit for prior learning as part of meaningful pathways to completion.

ACE Learning Evaluations do the hard work of assessing the quality and equivalency of nonacademic learning experiences. ACE's recommendations are intended to guide decisions at specific institutions about the award of credit. Any institution can use the information provided as part of the development of a credit for a prior learning program or for individual decisions about transfer credit for incoming students.

This vast and enormously valuable body of credit recommendations enables colleges and universities to directly connect their own credential information in CTDL to the ACE learning evaluations that they accept, increasing the value of their programs and helping to recruit students. For example, a technical college can publish to the registry their transfer credits for advanced manufacturing skills learned through on-the-job training, making it more cost-effective for people to complete management credentials that help them advance in their careers.

AACRAO is leading the way for digital credentials issued to individuals that focus on what is learned through education, inside and outside the classroom. These digital credentials are based on transparent, open standards. AACRAO has published guidance for competency-based educational records and Comprehensive Learner Records (CLRs) that include CTDL.Footnote10

Although academic transcripts will continue to be important to those inside higher education, digital credentials that include CTDL can carry a great deal more information than a traditional transcript because they connect to a world of linked open data on the web. This value accrues and becomes richer as more colleges and universities publish their data into CTDL. AACRAO guidance explicitly cites the importance of using CTDL descriptions of credentials and competencies so that, although they come from different sources, they can be commonly understood. Credential Engine has published detailed technical and nontechnical resources explaining the importance and how-to of including CTDL in Open Badges, CLRs, learning and employment records, and other digital credentials.Footnote11

EDUCAUSE consistently advocates for the appropriate use of technology innovation that advances higher education and serves the 16 million students at their member institutions. Technology promotes clarity, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness—and credentialing is an area hungry for all of these. Especially in the last year, in which our most vulnerable populations have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, this kind of broad approach is needed to help level the playing field for all students.

For students who face numerous obstacles to achieving their goals, credentialing is one barrier that can be addressed with CTDL tools already in place. EDUCAUSE shares resources with colleges and universities across the world, including those that stress the importance of credential transparency, such as a widely used publication about CTDL in the 7 Things You Should Know About… series and a webinar and related resources on "Credential Engine: Promoting Credential Transparency via a Linked Data Registry."Footnote12

It takes leadership to effectively scale credential transparency.

Higher Education Roles and Responsibilities for Credential Transparency

Higher education institutions are seeking credential transparency through multiple avenues, publishing not only credentials in CTDL but also competency frameworks, quality assurance information, transfer value, occupational alignments, employment outcomes, learning and career pathways, and more. Ongoing efforts to build increasingly richer CTDL data will evolve in different ways according to each institution's history, structure, and mission. Individuals in different roles can each play a part in contributing concretely to credential transparency. This list is not exhaustive, but it provides a helpful start for talking to stakeholders at your institution.

  • Board members: Consider credential transparency in any review of institutional policies, procedures, and disclosure statements. Highlight and update institutional strategic differentiators in publications and communications.
  • Presidents: Incorporate credential transparency into strategic priorities and ensure your institution has tools and incentives for reporting outcomes and other credential data, and that each campus area is communicating and cooperating in a holistic manner on how to best achieve credential transparency as an institution.
  • Senior IT leadership: Consider how best to include credential transparency and data management support within procurement processes. Support professional development for staff to lead data transparency and inclusion of CTDL in institutional websites.
  • Academic leadership: Look for opportunities to leverage credential transparency into academic program reviews and self-studies, such as by documenting program differentiation, competency maps, or assessment plans. Seek to integrate these competencies and assessment approaches beyond academic courses to include experiential education and the co-curriculum.
  • Faculty: Work together to articulate and align curricular, instructional, and assessment practices for each credential offered at the institution. Identify the places and ways in which this also happens across the broader educational environment and context of the institution.
  • Registrar: Define operational procedures supporting credential transparency, such as regular audits of academic catalogs, student information systems, program guides, data warehouses, and public websites. Support mapping relevant course and degree data to CTDL. Lead initiatives that explore how credentials earned outside higher education can be evaluated and "counted" toward academic requirements, especially requirements beyond elective credit.
  • Information technology staff: Learn about using open data standards for more effective integrations. Obtain globally unique CTDL identifiers for all credentials so that credential changes are well managed. Automate CTDL encoding and transmission of relevant course and degree data.
  • Reporting, institutional research, and analytics staff: Build efficient data reporting workflows by ensuring staff have appropriate and consistent access to credential source systems, establishing reusable credential reports, and so on.
  • Continuing and online education leadership: Integrate competencies into programs designed to help people advance their careers. Leverage your entrepreneurial spirit to innovate and scale.

We believe credential transparency has the potential to establish a virtuous cycle benefiting higher education staff and faculty, employers, government, and most importantly, individuals who are seeking education and opportunities. Institutions that clearly communicate the value of their credentials to the public can expect to enroll students seeking those credentials. Employers benefit from highly qualified applicants with the competencies required for critical roles, and they will be more likely to support institutions via endorsements, preferential tuition benefits, or student loan repayment benefits. As we look to bolster public confidence in our higher education system and improve equitable outcomes, embracing credential transparency principles can be an important part of those efforts. The models and forms of education will continue to change, but credential transparency can be an enduring aid for leaders to earn and maintain the public's trust.

As the nation moves from recovery to growth in the post-COVID-19 era, ensuring student success before, during, and after a higher education experience is critical to ensuring equitable economic growth and social mobility for all individuals. Guided by this imperative, colleges and universities, employers, policy makers, and influencers need to come together to share and use CTDL data in order for transparency to have the largest impact. Greater transparency empowers everyone to understand the value of the different credentials available, so that they can choose the best options for learning, advancement, and meaningful careers. Together, we can ensure that people have access to the information they need to pursue opportunities and get ahead.

Together—through credential transparency—we can illuminate pathways to an equitable and inclusive future.

Notes

  1. Credential Engine, Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials (February 2021). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Credential Engine, Education and Training Expenditures in the U.S. (February 2021). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Credential Engine, Credential Transparency Description Language Fact Sheet (October 3, 2018). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. D. Everhart, E. Ganzglass, C. Casilli, D. Hickey, and B. Muramatsu, Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2016), p. 21. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Ibid., pp. 21–22. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Credential Engine, "Success Stories: Indiana," July 16, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. American Council on Education (ACE), Credential Engine, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), and EDUCAUSE, Increasing Credential Transparency in Postsecondary Education (October 2019). Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. L. Soares, J. S. Gagliardi, and C. J. Nellum, The Post-Traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited: Aligning Postsecondary Education with Real Life for Adult Student Success (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2017). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. American Council on Education, Reimagining Transfer for Student Success: The National Task Force on the Transfer and Award of Credit (2021). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Guidance on the Review of the Comprehensive Learner Records (CLR) Standard from IMS Global (May 5, 2020). Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. J. Kitchens, J. Grann, and D. Everhart, Making Learner and Worker Records More Meaningful, Relevant, and Actionable: The Value of the Credential Transparency Description Language (Washington, DC: Credential Engine, June 20, 2020). Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. EDUCAUSE, 7 Things You Should Know About Credential Transparency Description Language, December 6, 2018; J. Grann, N. Huntemann, and C. Morrison, "Credential Engine: Promoting Credential Transparency via a Linked Data Registry," EDUAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) webinar, January 22, 2019. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Deborah Everhart is Chief Strategy Officer at Credential Engine.

Tom Green is Associate Executive Director for Consulting and Strategic Enrollment Management for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE,

Louis Soares is Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at the American Council on Education (ACE).

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