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Credentialing has exploded in type and number in recent years, as job seekers earn a growing range of certificates, badges, experiential transcripts, industry certifications and licenses, in addition to traditional college degrees.

That expansion has led to a chaotic, fragmented system, according to the Lumina Foundation. Students and employers often are confused about what credentials represent and whether rigor is behind them.

“Under the current credentialing system, it's difficult for individuals to know which postsecondary education or training programs they should pursue to secure their desired job or build the skills needed to remain relevant in today's workforce,” Lumina said in a written statement. “It's equally challenging for students to know how credentials translate from one job or program to another and which credentials are high quality.”

The foundation on Thursday announced that it has begun a national dialogue to bring some clarity to credentialing. It has enlisted 48 higher education, labor and business organizations to come up with ideas for a more connected, transparent system. They include the AARP Foundation, the American Council on Education, the Manufacturing Institute and a regional accreditor.

The group will grow in the run-up to a summit scheduled for this fall, to which more than 200 organizations will be invited.

“The tent is big here,” said Jamie Merisotis, the foundation’s president and CEO, in a call with reporters.

Lumina officials said the goal isn’t to replace the various forms of quality assurance in credentialing, which include industry standards, accreditation and projects like the Lumina-sponsored Degree Qualification Profile, which attempts to define what a degree should mean.

Rather, the new credential framework should be a “translation tool” that seeks to create a common language across those systems, linking them together, said Dewayne Mathews, the foundation’s vice president of strategy development.

The foundation on Thursday released a beta version of the framework, which experts from the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and the Center for Law and Social Policy developed. Dozens of contributors from other groups also helped create the template.

The draft system draws heavily from competency-based learning. The framework’s competencies are “common reference points to help understand and compare the levels and types of knowledge and skills that underlie degrees, certificates, industry certifications” and the various other forms of credentials.

Competencies are grouped under categories of knowledge and skills, with the latter broken into subdomains for specialized skills, personal skills and social skills. The categories feature eight levels, which indicate the breadth or depth of learning achieved.

For example, level one under specialized skills includes:

  • Demonstrates basic cognitive and practical skills required to carry out tasks with stipulated rules.
  • Demonstrates ability to recognize and to act on elementary relationships between assignments and tasks.

And level eight reads:

  • Demonstrates and applies skills in making high-level, independent judgments in a range of technical or management functions in varied specialized contexts. This includes the initiation, planning and evaluation of broad specialized technical and creative functions comprising cross-activity areas and the consideration of alternatives.
  • Demonstrates comprehensively developed skills for the identification and solution of novel problems set in the areas of research, development or innovation within a specialized scientific subject or in a field of professional activity.

Another underlying principle of the framework is that of “stackable” credentials.

This approach has begun to take hold in certain pockets of higher education. It is a more holistic way of connecting students’ credentials -- ranging from short-term certificates to Ph.D.s -- across a field of study. Stackable pathways are designed to prevent students from losing credits, time and money as they move in and out of higher education.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, a national group that focuses on undergraduate and liberal education, has signed on to the Lumina-led credentialing effort.

“The entirety of postsecondary education -- certificate, training and degree programs alike -- needs to prepare graduates to grapple productively with complex problems and projects -- across disciplines, and connecting theory with real-world practice and experience,” said Carol Geary Schneider, the association’s president, in an email. “Lumina’s initiative has the potential to reframe what we actually mean by ‘ladders of opportunity’ and how educators can ensure that there are many on-ramps to an opportunity-expanding education.”

The project could improve equity in higher education, Schneider said. She hopes it can help close the gap between low-income learners, who are “steered to narrow training programs, while the children of the fortunate get an opportunity-creating big picture or liberal education.”

More transparent credentials will create clearer pathways to careers and economic mobility, according to the framework document. Students can make better choices about their education if they know more about credentialing, which will also help in the hiring and promotion of workers.

The framework is designed to be flexible, because it allows for “precise analysis and reflection on the attributes of each individual credential rather than attempting to peg all credentials of a certain type to a fixed level.”

Merisotis said the work won’t be easy.

“This is not going to be a short fix,” he said. “This is going to be many, many years.”

The effort is worthwhile, said Ryan Craig, who called a common framework for credentials the “holy grail.”

Craig is managing director of University Ventures, a higher-education investment fund. He is also author of the book College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. He praised the foundation for asking the right questions about credentialing and inviting a good range of participants for the work.

“If Lumina's effort succeeds, we will avoid an alphabet soup of credentials that would cause unnecessary friction in the labor and postsecondary education markets,” said Craig.

He is optimistic that the Lumina-led effort could help prevent a severe disruption, where colleges lose their relevance as central organizing units for learning after high school.

“If this isn’t done, then higher education will be utterly unprepared,” he said, “and unable to respond when LinkedIn releases version 1.0 of the competency-based marketplace.”

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