One of the loudest complaints about higher education these days is that prospective students lack good information about the value of college credentials and, likewise, that employers too often are left in the dark about the knowledge and skills they can expect of credential holders.
A sprawling new project seeks to change that by creating a centralized database of information about postsecondary credentials -- all 250,000 or so of them in the U.S., ranging from Ph.D. to badge, professional license to apprenticeship and certificate.
The nonprofit Credential Engine, which is planning a formal launch in December, has tapped a broad range of advisers to develop a common language about credentials, with a focus on the “competencies” people should have after earning them.
Credential Engine’s web-based registry allows colleges, professional associations, unions, other credential issuers and state governments to post public-facing information about credentialing programs. The site also plans to feature information about how credential earners fare in the job market, including wage data from state and federal sources.
The overarching goal of the project is to increase transparency about credentials, said Scott Cheney, Credential Engine’s executive director.
He said the registry seeks to be a “neutral repository that reveals the marketplace.” That would be an improvement from the current situation, Cheney said, where “people are making big decisions because of whatever marketing material comes to them.”
So far, roughly 160 organizations have uploaded information about 1,264 credentials to the registry. Some colleges are among the early adopters, including Elon University, which has uploaded descriptions of all 97 of its offered degrees and other credentials.
“It’s a time-consuming process,” said Rodney Parks, the registrar at Elon. “It takes time to understand the language.”
Even so, he said, Credential Engine has tremendous potential and is worth the work.
“This will be the one-stop shop for credentials,” said Parks.
Indiana, Washington and New Jersey are among a handful of state governments that are at various stages of participation in the project.
For example, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has begun posting information about health-care credentials, including descriptions of academic and job-training programs, what assessments and training occur in those programs, and how the issued credentials are viewed by accrediting agencies and licensing boards.
“We have every health program that’s offered by a public institution in the registry,” said Ken Sauer, senior associate commissioner and chief academic officer for the commission.
At least seven Indiana state agencies are participating in the project, as are K-12 schools, public and private colleges, representatives from the U.S. military, and several industry associations. If the project is successful, Indiana plans to follow up with information about credentials in other industries.
Sauer said the goal is to make the site useful for students, colleges and employers.
“This is a way to signal to educational institutions and providers what skill sets need to be developed in their programs in order to align with the skill sets that employers need,” he said.
What Comes Next?
The Lumina Foundation and JPMorgan Chase are funding Credential Engine, which grew out of the Credential Transparency Initiative. It relates to other Lumina-backed efforts, including Connecting Credentials, which is attempting to create a common language for comparing credentials.
Credential Engine’s backers face a long, uphill climb, as supporters of the project acknowledge.
When plans for the registry were announced last year, some were skeptical about the project's scope and whether it was achievable. But most agree that a central repository for better information about credentials is needed. And if it’s not Credential Engine, experts said, another organization eventually will figure out how do it.
“The time is right,” said Jonathan Finkelstein, the founder and CEO of Credly, a digital credentialing company.
While Finkelstein said Credential Engine is a “mighty undertaking” that will take a long time, the potential payoff makes it worthwhile. “It’s to everyone’s benefit that their credentials are discoverable.”
The effort has the backing of several powerful organizations on the employer side. The Business Roundtable helped promote the registry’s launch and is part of Credential Engine’s business advisory group. So are representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Manufacturing Institute and the National Retail Federation, among others.
Ryan Craig, co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, a higher education investment firm, also is an adviser. Craig said the credentialing site has the potential to become what he calls a “competency marketplace,” a skills-based meeting point for employers, students, job seekers, policy makers and college curriculum planners.
And the biggest upside for Credential Engine is what others might do with the credentialing information, he said.
“Ultimately the competency marketplace is going to work not because a bunch of human beings have cleverly developed a taxonomy,” said Craig, but “because we have algorithms that are doing a good job of interpreting the data.”
As a result, Craig described Credential Engine as a “prototype of what could be done, algorithmically, at a larger scale.”
Bringing Clarity to a ‘Chaotic Ecosystem’
An algorithmic future is part of the plan for Credential Engine.
The nonprofit is working to create an open applications marketplace, which will allow outside organizations to build customized web apps to use the registry’s data. For example, a technology company could create a searchable database about credentials for prospective college students. Or employers could create applications to tap registry information for their HR systems, to better understand the skills and competencies job applicants should have based on their credentials.
Many industries provide easily searchable information about what they sell, with airline fare aggregators being a commonly cited example of Web 3.0 commerce. Backers of Credential Engine hope the registry can bring a Kayak-style approach to data on postsecondary education and job training.
Cheney said the goal is to enable people to "search and compare credentials just like you would SUVs."
If successful, the site would help make sense of a “chaotic ecosystem,” said Holly Zanville, senior adviser for credentialing and work-force development at Lumina. “Why can’t we do that in credentialing?”
Information on student outcomes, including job placement and earnings, will come from the states. Cheney said Credential Engine also may draw data from a federal agency, such as the U.S. Census Bureau or the Internal Revenue Service.
The site will not collect or work with information on individual students and graduates, however, instead using sources of aggregate, nonidentifiable data. As a result, Cheney said, Credential Engine will not pose privacy risks.
“We will have no individual records about people,” he said.
The group also might partner with nongovernmental data-collection organizations to bolster the registry, said Cheney, with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center as a possibility.
Washington State’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board collects information about the market value of postsecondary training programs in the state that receive public funding. The board has posted data on wages of graduates, completion rates and enrollment for roughly 3,500 programs on its Career Bridge site. The audience is students, parents and lawmakers.
The goal for Credential Engine is to produce similar public-facing information for the broader universe of credentials, said Eleni Papadakis, the board’s executive director.
“We believe that’s the new communication channel in work-force development and education,” she said.
In addition to better data, supporters of the Credential Engine project hope it will bring clarity to the credential discussion by helping to create a standardized infrastructure.
“Conversations often suffer from a common-language problem,” said Finkelstein, who added that Credential Engine “standardizes and digitizes the descriptions of credentials.”
But for that to happen, the group will need to get information from many colleges and others on the credentials they issue.
Papadakis urged colleges to be pioneers by participating in the project.
“If not, we’re never going to learn to do this better,” she said. “This all goes away if we don’t have the data owners putting things in.”