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Major employers will be invited to have their internal training programs evaluated for academic creditworthiness under a new digital credentialing system led by the American Council on Education.

The initiative, launched today, will see ACE team up with the digital credential provider Credly to help people put a value on skills they have learned outside college courses.

Through a $1.5 million grant from the Lumina Foundation, ACE will work with employers to assess which skills and competencies employees can derive from work-based training programs, and how much college credit these are worth.

Employees who complete these training programs will be provided with shareable digital credentials to help them demonstrate what they know and what they can do. An official machine-readable transcript will also be provided that can easily be shared -- if and when the workers choose to do so -- with colleges and universities for academic credit.

While making it easier for working adults to enter postsecondary education is what many college officials might care most about, that's not the sole driver behind the new effort. The digital credentials offered through the initiative can also be used as third-party verified résumés when employees seek new jobs.

Valuing learning that happens outside colleges is not a new endeavor for ACE. Forty years ago, it launched the College Credit Recommendation Service, which helps people get academic credit for exams and training that are not part of degree programs. This new initiative will build on the success of the service, but will be useful not only to workers thinking of getting a degree, but also to those looking for recognition of their skills.

Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, said in a news release that the initiative’s focus on digital credentials is “about creating a new language for the labor market” and not just nudging people who may have no experience of postsecondary education to pursue college degrees.

“We’re fostering collaborations between employers and institutions that reflect the reality of today’s adult learners, and our shared responsibility in creating more seamless pathways from employment to education, and economic opportunity,” said Mitchell.

Ryan Craig, the managing director of investment firm University Ventures, said that the ACE initiative fits in with the emergence of a “competency marketplace” that places less focus on “pedigree and degrees” and more focus on ability.

By working with Credly, ACE and the Lumina Foundation are recognizing that “it’s imperative for the future health and well-being of the sector that higher education set the direction,” said Craig.

But Sheryl Grant, director of research at the Community Success Institute and former director of badging research and alternative credentials at HASTAC at Duke University, said the announcement was “not really surprising.”

“This looks to me like it is supercharging a lot of the efforts that these organizations are already making around prior learning assessment, competency-based education and organizing credentials so that they have value to outside organizations,” said Grant. She noted, however, that all the organizations involved were well placed to succeed with the initiative because of their expertise in these areas.

Louis Soares, vice president for strategy, research and advancement at ACE, agreed that the initiative was building on a lot of things that ACE was doing already.

“The project will help us develop a sustainable and scalable platform to continue that work,” he said. He noted that the companies ACE already works with to evaluate their training programs have expressed “an increasing desire to document competencies -- we’re trying to keep pace with that.” ACE has worked with large companies like McDonald’s and Jiffy Lube, as well as smaller organizations.

Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly, said he anticipated the scale of the initiative would be big. Credly began working with ACE last year and has seen heightening demand for digital credentials, even from people who aren’t intending to get a college degree any time soon, said Finkelstein.

“Employers who subject their training programs to third-party review are recognizing that they need to project to employees (and the talent that they would like to attract) that they are the kind of place that places a premium on upskilling and ongoing training and professional development,” said Finkelstein.

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